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Ancient and modern art in French Polynesia Gauguin Tahitian Pearls

French Polynesia

Paul Gauguin


Even before Gauguin was born, several other great European artists went In search of inspiration in foreign, exotic parts of the world. Delacroix and several lesser French painters of the romantic generation for instance visited Morocco, Algeria and the Middle East, in the 1830s and 1840s. The stimulation they received, however, resulted simply in pictorial anecdotes, high in local color to be sure, but the new motifs were never accompanied by any stylistic borrowings or technical innovations. It can therefore safely be claimed that Gauguin was the real discoverer in Europe of the aesthetic merits of the hitherto neglected and disdained arts of the so-called primitive peoples, and the first artist in the Western world to adapt In his own works many of their characteristic features and designs. 

In retrospect, it is tempting to ascribe this widening of his horizons to the various voyages and sojourns he made In the tropics in his childhood and youth, before he took up painting in 1873. These included a six-year stay in Lima, Peru, from the age of one to seven, and two voyages to South America as an apprentice and second mate on various merchant ships, between the ages of seventeen and twenty.

Gauguin's response to these exotic stimuli was, however, very slow, for it was not until the winter of 1886-87 that he began making ceramic pieces. clearly inspired by American pre-Columbian pottery. Like his masters, the Peruvian and Mexican Indians, who never had the potter's wheel, he simply kneaded big chunks of clay into vessels of strange, fantastic forms with his bare hands - which was quite a revolutionary method at the time in Europe, where all potters without question continued to turn out vases of the classical, cylindrical, symmetrical form, distinguishable only through the decoration applied to them.

Another group of non-European cultures that fascinated Gauguin at an early stage was labelled "Oriental" by himself and comprised most generously not only Japan and Cambodia but also Persia and Egypt! Since he never visited any of these countries, he must have seen the much-praised examples of 'Oriental art" he so often refers to, in the museum collections in Paris, or simply as illustrations in books and magazines. Somewhat later, the World Exhibition in Paris, In 1889, offered him another splendid opportunity to see a wide range of Oriental architecture, sculpture and other works of art.


For a painter so captivated by "primitive" art as Gauguin it was only a matter of time before he would begin to study it more closely, at in @ His first choice was Indo-China, where he optimistically expected to be employed as an administrator in the recently established French colonial service. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats did not realize what a splendid empire-builder was concealed in this unknown artist and turned him down. His next choice was Madagascar. The motivation was the same, for he spoke of the many exotic races and religions he wanted to study there. As to the financial problems, he now believed that they could easily by solved by gathering a small group of artists who were willing to work together, grow their own food and keep a couple of cows!

The only fellow-painter who immediately accepted Gauguin's invitation was the young Emile Bernard who found the plan wonderful - except for one thing. He had just read the sentimental best-seller The marriage of Loti and was firmly convinced that the still more remote Polynesian island of Tahiti, described in such glowing terms by Loti, offered even greater advantages, from both the artistic and the economic point of view. Gauguin lamely objected that it was a novel and asked for a more reliable book about Tahiti, giving facts and figures. By return mail he received an official guide, confirming that Tahiti was indeed still the unspoilt Eden, inhabited by noble savages, that Wallis, Bougainville and Cook had made known to the world more than one hundred years earlier. The lines that Gauguin appreciated most were these : "While men and women on the opposite side of the globe toil to earn their living, contend with cold and hunger, and suffer constant privation, the lucky inhabitants of the remote South Sea paradise of Tahiti know life only at Its brightest. For them, to live is to sing and love."

Consequently, he was only mildly upset when Bernard and the other prospective travel companions withdrew, one after the other, and he pushed vigorously ahead with his own plans. How strongly and sincerely he believed In the popular myth, depicting Tahiti as an earthly paradise, is best seen from the following explanation of his artistic aims, taken from an interview published by the Echo de Paris, on February 23, 1891, five weeks before his departure : 

"The reason why I am leaving is that I wish to live in peace and to avoid being influenced by our civilization. I only desire to create a simple art. In order to achieve this, it Is necessary for me to steep myself in virgin nature, to see no one but savages, to share their life and have as my sole occupation to render, just as children would do, the images of my own brain, using exclusively the means offered by primitive art, which are the only true and valid ones."

The same day this interview appeared In print an auction sale In Paris of thirty pictures painted in Martinique, Aries and Brittany realized almost ten thousand francs. This success led Gauguin to believe that he would soon be able to send for and support his Danish wife Mette and his five children whom he had left in Denmark six years earlier. They had continued to correspond all these years, hoping for better times. As soon as the sale was over, Gauguin therefore took the train to Copenhagen to talk things over with his wife. She was perfectly willing to resume life with him, she said. But not In Tahiti. So without too much regret Gauguin changed his plans and decided to remain there only the time it would take to paint enough pictures to be able to organize, on his return, a big exhibition that would at long last result in the final and universal recognition of his genius. On All Fools' Day, April Ist, 1891, he left Marseilles on a French passenger ship, bound for Noumea in New Caledonia via the Seychelles, Albany, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. He was lucky, for he was able to continue from Noumea only one week later, on a French naval ship. At daybreak, on June 9, the ship moored in the harbor of Papeete. The passage had taken 69 days, which was considered quite rapid.


It did not take Gauguin long to discover that the snmdl capital of the French Oceanic Settlements, as the colony was then called, was an ugly shantytown, consisting mainly of brick buildings gnd plank houses with corrugated iron roofs. As for the naked Eves and the noble savages that he had come halfway around the world to paint, all the native women in sight decorously wore wide, ankle-length, so-called Mother Hubbard dresses, introduced by the missionaries. The town dress of the men was even more civilized and ludicrous, since it consisted of a pareu, or loin-cloth of gaily printed cotton fabric, a white shirt, and a yellow strawhat.

High society in Papeete comprised some dozen French officials and officers with their families and an equal number of successful business men, practically all former navy men or ex-soldiers who had married Tahitian women and stayed on after completing their terms of service. For the governor and certain other senior officials, the required everyday wear was a black frock-coat, while the settlers as a rule wore a white linen suit with high-necked collar and a topee. Social life among the upper classes was an endless round of dinners, the menus and table plans of which would long be the chief topic of conversation in the town. Between dinners the women would gossip over tea, while their husbands gossiped, drank absinth, and played dominoes.

Gauguin was well received, mainly thanks to an official letter of introduction from the Department of Colonies that he had obtained before his departure from Paris. The day he arrived he was for instance feted at the Cercle Militaire, the exclusive club whose premises were situated in the largest park in the center of the town and included a giant banyan tree with a refreshment balcony ten feet above the ground. (A portion of the tree is still standing behind the present Post Office). Quite happily he conflded to Mette in his first letter to her : "I think I shall obtain some well-paid commissions for portraits. I am being constantly asked by all manner of people to paint them. At the moment I am making myself as difficult as possible (the surest way of getting well paid).  At any rate, I think I shall be able to make money here which I did not expect, Tomorrow I shall meet the entire royal family." 

But just before the time of the appointed audience the next morning, Gauguin learnt with a shock that his intended patron, King Pomare V, had suddenly died, a victim of many years of excessive drinking.  When the funeral took place, on June 16, Gauguin joined the long procession of mourners that followed the hearse on foot to the royal family's mausoleum, situated on a beautiful spit of land in the district of Arue three miles to the east of Papeete.  Gauguin was very unfavorably impressed by this strange construction (still In existence) which "clashes glaringly with the decorative beauty of the nature".

The period of official mourning was immediately followed by the biggest annual event in the colony.  Bastille Day. which, with admirable endurance and patriotism, the settlers and natives alike extended into a frenzied celebration lasting several weeks.  When Gauguin, alarmed by the rapid drain of his funds, at long list declared himself ready to accept commissions, the only person willing to sit for him and pay the enormous fee of 200 francs was a middle-aged, faded, sturdy matron, Tutana Bambridge.  Still worse, he made the mistake of producing a portrait of such a striking likeness, including a most authentic scarlet nose, that it was also his last commission.


Disgusted by the narrowness and egoism of the European town people, Gauguin decided to leave Papetee at once and settle down somewhere in the country among the natives. Unfortunately, just as he was about to pack, he began to have palpitations and cough blood, the sad consequences of a hepatitis contracted in Panama In 1887. At the meagerly equipped hospital In Papeete, the two doctors who formed the whole staff diagnosed a weak heart, gave him digitalis, applied mustard plasters to his legs and cupped his chest! Thanks to, or rather In spite of this barbaric treatment, Gauguin recuperated enough to accept the kind offer of the French schoolmaster of Paea, on the west coast of Tahiti, to come and stay with him for a couple of weeks. Feeling fit again in October 1891, he moved still farther away from Papeete to the district of Mataiea. on the south coast of Tahiti.

Although there were other houses available, Gauguin preferred to rent an oval, Tahitian style bamboo hut with a roof of pandilnus leaves. The choice was excellent, for such a hut is definitely the coolest and most comfortable dwelling in the tropical climate that reigns in the island. Equally important for Gauguin was the fine, even lighting inside the windowless hut, thanks to the wide interstices in the walls of loosely connected bamboo canes, which made it an ideal studio. The hut - which of course has disappeared long ago was situated some hundred yards from the beach, on the bank of the small stream Vaitara, immediately west of the present Protestant church in Matalea. From the hut Gauguin could see the mountains in the interior of the island, and from the beach, where he used to go down In the evening with his neighbors to smoke a cigarette, he had a magnificent view of the peninsula of Talarapu, or Little Tahiti.

All this was very rewarding. But even In this remote district preciouslylittle remained of what Gauguin had come such a long way to study : the ancient native culture. What the Tahitians had managed to preserve was mainly their language, simple subsistence economy, family-centered social organization, dances and music, whereas the aspects In which Gauguin was most interested, the artistically sculptured utensils and decorated bark-cloths, had long ago been replaced by Imported articles of European manufacture. As for the many sculptures of wood and stone that existed in Tahiti in pre-European times, they had a religious character and function. Unavoidably, when the old religion disappeared. this art too had died out.

It nevertheless gave Gauguin great satisfaction and many thrills to participate in the village life, and, stimulated by all these new experiences, he painted with eagerness and enthusiasm during the first months. The only problem he had was that he could not find a girl willing to share his life. Towards the middle of 1892, he therefore set out on a journey, first by mail coach to Taravao, on the isthmus, and then on horseback along the east coast of Great Tahiti. He had barely ridden five miles, when he was invited, with typical Tahitian hospitality, by a native family In the district of Faaone, to enter their hut for rest and refreshment. Inside the hut several persons reclined on the dry grass that covered the earth floor.


Gauguin frankly told them the true nature of his errand, without knowing that it was customary in Tahiti for the parents to arrange a match for their children. He was therefore somewhat taken aback when one of the women calmly proposed to give him her daughter and immediately sent for her. She turned out to be a beautiful young girl who, like all true Polynesians, had a broad, flat nose, very full lips, powerful legs, a wonderfully soft skin, large expressive eyes and jet-black hair which reached the waist. Her name was Teha'amana, but she is better known by posterity as Tehura, the name Gauguin used in his book Moa Noa. She was thirteen and had thus just attained her marrying age.

Gauguin was Immediately fascinated by bw and wooed her In this qukk and matter-of-fact way :

  • You are not afraid of me?
  • No. 
  • Will you live in my hut for good? 
  • Yes. 
  • Have you ever been ill? 
  • No.

To Gauguin's great annoyance, however, Teha'amana's mother and other relatives started to follow them, when they left. A few miles to the south, the whole troop came to halt before another bamboo hut. Inside, Teha'amana introduced another couple to him as her foster parents. His second motherin-law proved a little bit more exacting, for she said firmly :

  • I want Teha'amana to come back here a week from now. If by then she is not happy, she shall not stay with you.

Luckily, he passed the test. A new life began for him - "I started to work again and my house was an abode of happiness. In the morning wmm Cbe rose the house was filled with radiance. Teha'amana's face shone rike @ tinging everything with its lustre, and the two of us would go out and . ef, ourselves in the nearby stream as simply and naturally as in the Garden of Eden, fenua nave nave. As time passed, Teha'amana grew ever more P4@ and affectionate in our day-to-day life. Tahitian noa noa (perfume) imbued me absolutely."

Teha'amana unquestionably was the right woman for him. Not she happened to be different, but because she was in every respect an ordinwy. typical Tahitian vahine. Her need of money and gifts was small, her dem&-id for sentimental effusions, compliments and gallantries even smaller. Know--I by her simple upbringing in the country that men's and women's int@ and work are different, she never interfered in, or even tried to unde,s= id what Gauguin did, but let him paint in peace. Nor did it matter to her. if he never kept regular hours, for she herself had never been used to @mHer perpetual gaiety and good humor were particularly pleasant and refreshing to his mind. There was no risk that they would quarrel, for Gauguin knew only some dozen Tahitian words and sentences, and Teha'amana spoke no French. Incidentally, she called him, like everybody else in the district, K@ the nearest approximation in Tahitian to the way his name was pronounced. From the practical point of view too, she helped him to learn more about the life and customs of his Tahitian neighbors and persuaded them to pose for him.

Not even Teha'amana's pregnancy, barely two months later, created any problems or ill-feelings on her. part. The reason was, as Gauguin quite truthfully declared in a letter that "a child is always welcome, and is often stipulated in advance by the relations. In fact, they will actually compete in order to become the adoptive parents, a child being in Tahiti the best possible gift." But another solution, equally acceptable. was to resort to abortion. and this was the course Teha'amana eventually decided on.

In spite of the immense satisfaction and joy that Teha'amana gave him, Gauguin's life in Mataiea was not entirely without complications and problems. The most serious one was that he had recklessly spent so much of his capital. meant to last two years, during his first hilarious months in Papeete, that itwasalmostcompletelyexhaustedafteroneyear. Heneededatleast2OOfrancs a month for paying the rent, the wine, the tobacco and the canned food that made up his daily fare, and he soon had to ask for credit. His basic difficulty was of course that there were no buyers for his pictures in Tahiti, and that the nearest place where he had some chances of selling them was Paris. If he was lucky, he received payment five months later. In addition to his money problems his health failed him again on several occasions. But when he finally left for France, on June 14, 1893, almost to the day two years after his arrival. he had achieved his aim : among his luggage he carried sixty-six superb pictures and a dozen of wooden sculptures - more than enough for an epoch-making exhibition.


To what extent do these sixty-six pictures that Gauguin painted 1891 and 1893 show us life as it really was in Tahiti towards the end of the last century ? This question has been much debated, but no single answer is satisfactory, since his aims and approaches varied greatly even during this short period.

To begin with there are among these pictures numerous portraits, landscapes and scenes of every day native life, such as women plaiting hats, children gathered round a table with food, men carrying bunches of bananas or bread fruit, fishermen inspecting their nets, Tahitians bathing In a river, and young people dancing at night round a bonfire in the palm forest. Good examples are Under the pandanus, and Tahitian landscape In the Minneapolis Institute of Art, The burao tree in the Art Institute of Chicago and Parau parau, belonging to Mr. John Hay Whitney. New York. Every detail is exact, and it is easy to find contemporary photographs that confirm the realistic character of these paintings. 

But we must at the same time be aware that Gauguin's eye is selective he only depicts the most beautiful, primitive and idyllic aspects of life in Mataiea. There is no reason, of course, to criticize him for painting what he found new and attractive - which would neither be missionaries, nuns, settlers, churches plank houses, nor shops. But in view of the widespread belief, shared for a long time by Gauguin himself, that Tahiti still was an earthly paradise in the 1890s, it is nevertheless of some importance to point out that what the artist presents us with in these pictures is actually a very limited part of the reality.

Another category of paintings have subjects taken from the Tahitian religion and mythology. like Hina Tefatou (The moon and the earth), in the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art, or Te aa no areois (Root of the ariol society), belonging to Mr. William S. Paley, New York. Gauguin's initiation into the ancient Tahitian mysteries occurred, however, not through personal participation in the rites and scenes he depicted, but quite prosaically by reading two learned works, written half a century earlier by a local merchant named Moerenhout and the French naval officier de Bovis, who had obtained their information from the last surviving indigenous priests. Gauguin was particularly fascinated by the two author's account of the ariol society, a kind of religious order in the service of the god Oro, comprising both men and women, who more completely and harmoniously than any other known human group, the hippies not excluded, had realized the ideal of free love. Since these two studies contained no illustrations or description of the ancient idols and cult paraphernalia, Gauguin in each case had to rely on his own superb imagination. It is therefore to no avail to look in the Polynesian sections of our anthropological museums for counterparts to the barbaric idols that dominate these pictures.

A third group of paintings is made up of freely Invented compositions that however often contain more or less recognizable borrowings from reproductions In Gauguin's possession of other artists' work or of Egyptian, Indian or Oriental sculptures and frescoes. The most famous example is the picture la orana Maria (Hail thee Mary), In the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In view of the fact that the Tahitians were by then completely Christianized and assiduous churchgoers, it is not at all surprising that the subject Is Biblical : the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, attended by two women and an angel. In all likelihood, Gauguin got the Idea of this picture when he visited the nearby Catholic church in Mataiea and heard the Tahitian version of the prayer Ave Maria. All the figures have Tahitian features which was a quite original and daring innovation In the 1890s.  Yet his most Important source of inspiration was one of the friezes at the Javanese temple at Borobudur of which he owned a photograph.

All these different types of pictures had, however, one thing in common by Gauguin's masterly choice of suggestive colors he always succeeded in Investing them with that mystical and mysterious aura that was his special hallmark.  The only difference between his previous works and the paintings he produced in Tahiti was one of degree.  In his new environment, so remote from Europe, fellow-painters, art galleries and critics, he felt freer and found it easier to go his own way.


On his return to Paris, in the fall of 1893, Gauguin managed. with the help of Degas, to persuade the famous dealer in impressionist paintings, Durand Ruel, to organize an exhibition.  Of the sixty-six pictures he had brought back, he selected forty-one which all today occupy places of honor in private and public collections around the world.  The leading newspapers and magazines carried articles well in advance.  Furthermore, invitations had been sent out to everybody who counted in the Parisian art world of that day.  As a result or these careful preparations, on the day of the vernissage, November 9, a considerable crowd had gathered in the elegant gallery in rue Laffitte to deliver Its verdict.  Only half an hour later- the indifferent, derisive or puzzled faces of the spectators told their own unmistabable story.  Gauguin had failed.  From the financial point of view, too, the exhibition was a complete disaster.  Only eight pictures were sold, and the proceeds barely covered the expenses.

The hardest blow for Gauguin, however, was that his wife Mette was more convinced than ever after this fiasco that he had no talent whatsoever for painting and refused to see him again, if he did not at once abandon his foolish pursuit of an impossible dream.  Unfortunately, this was the only sacrifice that he could not do for his wife.  To crown all his misfortunes, he met with two stupid accidents that seriously impaired his health.  The first one occurred in the spring of 1894, in Brittany, where he and some of his friends were attacked by a far superior number of sailors who knocked him down and kicked him so savagely with their wooden shoes that he was left on the battle-ground with his right leg broken just above the ankle.  The second accident was more insidious.  Barely one year later, Gauguin contracted syphilis from a prostitute he picked up at a popular ball in Paris.

Overwhelmed by all these failures and misadventures, Gauguin had only one wish : to leave Europe as soon as possible.  After having toyed for a while with the idea of settling in the unspoilt islands of Samoa, following the example of Robert Louis Stevenson, he eventually chose to go back to Tahiti, an island civilized enough to have a hospital, such as it was.  This was especially important, as it was to be a voyage of no return.  In the dejected mood he was, he even assured a friend that he was giving up painting, "apart from what I may do for my own amusement."

His attempt to raise money by selling his whole stock of pictures at a public auction - a method which had given so excellent results In 16" failed completely this time, but thanks to a legacy from an uncle he could nevertheless realize his plans.  Once more he embarked in Marseilles on a French steamer, but instead of continuing to Noumea, he transferred in Sydney to a ship bound for Auckland, where he had to wait three weeks for the Richmond that maintained a regular service between New Zealand, Samoa, Rarotonga and Tahiti.  He spent most of his waiting period complaining about the bad weather, the poor food and the lack of distractions, but, more positively, also carefully studied the fine maori collections in the old Auckland Museum, at the top of Shortiand street.  On September 9, 1895, he was back in Papeete.  The advantage of having chosen a different route was nil.  The voyage had taken 69 days, exactly as in 1891.


Great excitement reigned in Papeete.  A high-ranking French official with the pompous title of Commissioner General and two war-ships had just arrived from France in order to annex the Leeward Islands.  After a first round of talks, the people of Raiatea and Tahaa still threatened to make armed resistance if any French troops landed, whereas the ruling queens of Huahine and Bora Bora declared themselves ready to give up their sovereignty.  The Commissioner General wisely decided to call at these latter islands first, accompanied by the governor and a dozen local officials and politicians, of whom some took along their wives.  Somehow GaugLiin succeeded in obtaining permission to join this diplomatic mission.

The party was well received in Huahine with chants, dances, speeches and a dinner that lasted all night and Gauguin enjoyed every minute of it.  The festivities awaiting them in Bora Bora were even more grandiose, as witnessed by the following account by Gauguin, taken from an hitherto unknown letter : "During these four days and four nights of extraordinary merrymaking, we have talked, shouted and sung, exactly like in Cythera... The queen is quite amusing and truly considerate.  She wanted the feasts to be celebrated completely in accordance with Tahitian custom and decided therefore to abolish, as long as they lasted, all marital laws.  That's why the owners of wives must keep them indoors, if they don't want their complaints to be disregarded." After the magnificent receptions accorded the party in these two islands, it was a severe shock to discover that the rulers of Raiatea and Tahaa still flatly refused to let anybody land.  Deciding to remain in the Leeward Islands on one of the war-ships, the Commissioner General sent back the rest of the party to Tahiti on the other ship.

This meant that Gauguin was again this pleasant Interlude had permitted him to postpone : he had to find a suitable place for building a new home.  When living in Mataiea, on the south coast, the uncomfortable coach journey to Papeete took five hours.  He was now more dependent than ever on such institutions as the hospital, the post office and the bank, all located in the small capital, and that was also where he had to go in order to find well-stocked shops, taverns and European friends.  For these reasons Gauguin did not move farther out into the country than to the village of Punaauia6 on the west coast, 12 kilometers from Papeete.  The bamboo with the problem that hut he built there on a leased land, between the road and the lagoon, was almost an exact copy of the one he had lived in previously.  At the same time he bought a horse and a trap for 300 francs to make him independent of the coaches.

The next step he took - to send for Teha'amana - shows even more clearly that what he tried to do was to recreate the happy life he had led in Mataiea, three years earlier.  He should have known, however, that all attempts to turn back the clock are doomed to failure for though the external circumstances may be Identical, one's personality changes over the years.  This was particularly true in Gauguin's case, after all he had been through in France.  As far as Teha'amana was concerned, she could not stand the sick and bitter Koke more than a week.  In a neighboring family, Gauguin soon found another girt of the same age.  Pau'ura. who was less particular.

The few pictures he managed to paint during his first year in Punaaula reflect his personal situation : he took up motifs dear to him during his stay In Mataiea and resorted to old stylistic devices.  Even his best works from this period, like Rerioa (The dream) and Nevermore, which both are in the Courtault Institute in London, are only more artificial, elaborate, insipid versions of two earlier pictures, i.e. The sulking woman from 1891, now In the Art Museum, Worcester, Mass.  USA, and the famous Manao tupapau from 1892, in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA.  But in order to be fair, we must not forget that Gauguin was still a convalescent and almost constantly suffered from severe pains in his broken ankle.  Time after time he had to lay aside his brush and palette, take pain-killing drugs, and lie In bed.  These were hardly circumstances conducive to intense creativity, particularly not for an artist with a temperament like Gauguin who had to paint a picture "feverishly, at one go."


As if all these moral and physical sufferings had not been enough, he also had to cope again with money problems. culminating in a complete disaster, when, at the beginning of 1897, the owner of the land where he had built his hut died, and the heirs told him to leave.  In order to avoid any recurrence of a similar misadventure in the future, he spent all his remaining funds on the purchase of a plot of about two and a half acres, on the beach, about a kilometer farther south, in the same district, and on the construction of a plank house, measuring 30 by 24 feet, and a studio of the same dimensions.  The site, next to the schoolhouse in Punaauia, is today marked by a sign-post.

Gauguin's personal contribution consisted of some carved wooden panels which he nailed to the walls of the bedroom and the studio.  According to the Papeete post master who often visited him in Punaauia, the house was sparsely furnished, but filled with books, clothes, rolls of canvas, musical instruments and other objects which lay scattered about in the greatest confusion.  Thanks to the postmaster's recollection, we also know exactly what Gauguin looked like : "He was powerfully built, with blue eyes, a high complexion, a slight tan, and chestnut-brown hair and beard - thin, imperial, to be exact - which were already greying.  At home he invariably dressed in native fashion, wearing a cotton shirt and a loin-cloth or pareu, always bare-footed.  But when visiting Papeete he wore European clothes : a high-collared jacket and white, or more often blue linen trousers, white canvas shoes, and a broadbrimmed hat of plaited pandanus leaves.  Because of his unhealed leg ulcers - evidence of his impaired health - he had a slight limp and supported himself by a scout stick." 

Since he had no longer any rent to pay, Gauguin's monthly expenses did not exceed 150 francs.  Unfortunately, he was unable to earn even this modest sum, for his pictures rarely fetched more than 100-200 francs in Paris, and the sales were very, very irregular.  For months, it was solely the credit granted him by the Chinese store-keeper in Punaauia that kept him alive.  But obviously, it was only a respite he had gained, for he could see how the diseases gradually spread through and over his whole body.  Towards the end of 1897 he was prostrate for long periods without getting any real sleep.  Giddiness and fainting flu alternated with bouts of blood-spitting.  But somehow his body resisted - to his intense regret.  As God or Destiny was unwilling to give him relief, he finally decided to put an end himself to all his sufferings.  But before disappearing he had to paint a last picture that was to be his spiritual testament to mankind.  Taking a piece of the ordinary coarse jute material that in Tahiti was used for making copra sacks, and which came in rolls four and a half feet wide, he cut off a portion a little more than thirteen feet in length, and with trembling fingers went to work.  The title he gave to this huge. fresco-like canvas which today occupies a place of honor in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was made up of the three eternal questions : Where do we come from ? What are we ? Where afle we going ?

As soon as he had completed the picture, Gauguin climbed up to the top of a hill behind his house and swallowed a huge dose of arsenic.  He must have taken an overdose, for after a while, when he had already dropped off Into a merciful sleep, he suddenly threw up all or most of the poison.


Miraculously, he recovered little by little.  He felt like a living dead but lacked will-power to make another attempt at suicide.  As the days passed, however, he became painfully conscious that even a living dead needs a lot of things that cost money.  In Gauguin's case, it was particularly urgent to pay his debts.  In the past, he had consistently refused to do anything else but paint.  But all his ambitions and hopes were now gone, and he was ready to accept any work, not only in order to earn a little money, but also for psychological reasons, to forget, bury his tormented sell The only employment he could find was ideally suited for this purpose :, he was hired by the Public Works Department, at a salary of six francs a day, to copy building designs and plans.

To his astonishment. after one year of this tedious work, he felt much better, and as at the same time he unexpectedly received enough money from Paris to pay off his debts, he resigned and returned to Punaauia.  When, on April 19, 18", his vahine Pau'ura, who during all these difficult years had remained relatively faithful, gave birth to another child, a boy, he was sufficiently pleased and interested to name him Emile like his eldest son with Mette.  He even painted two versions of a scene that he called Maternity, of which the first and best one presently belongs to Mr. David Rockefeller, New York, and the second one is hanging in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.  It may be worth adding that several unscrupulous agents and gallery owners recently have tried to launch this illegitimate son, who has not inherited one lot of his father's genius, on an artistic career.  The attempt has been a complete fiasco, and Emile is now back in his native island, happy to be simply a Tahitian among other Tahitians.

However, It was not the pleasures of parenthood which gave fresh purpose to Gauguin's life during the next few years, but an unexpected opportunity for sweet revenge.  It all began when he wrote an open letter to the procureur (attorney-general) of the colony that a local monthly paper published.  Some months later, in February 1900, the owners of this paper, two wealthy French businessmen, hired him at a modest salary to edit and write regularly for their paper, called Les Guilpes (The wasps).  For a whole year he kept up a barrage of criticism against the colonial administration and some private enemies.  On the other hand, an attempt to publish an illustrated satirical journal, Le Sourire (The smile), of which he was the sole owner, editor and collaborator, was less successful.  He only managed to sell about two dozen copies of each issue.

Gauguin was an excellent writer and polemic, and there is no doubt that the battles that he provoked and wholeheartedly engaged in gradually gave him back his taste for life.  At the same time, it is difficult not to regret that this frivolous occupation prevented an artist of Gauguin's greatness from painting for nearly two years.  The only important work executed during this period is the splendid picture in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, representing two Tahitian women with bare breasts, of whom the one on the left is holding a bowl filled with red flowers in her arms.


Once more Gauguin's life was given a new direction by an unforeseen event : an offer made by the young Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard to sign a contract, guaranteeing him an advance of 350 francs a month, to be deducted from the purchase of at least 25 unseen pictures a year, at 250 francs a piece.  These terms may not seem very generous to us.  But this was the sort of agreement that Gauguin had tried for years, without success, to conclude, and he promptly accepted.  With a monthly allowance of 350 francs he could live very comfortably, and he was at long last, at the age of 53, a free man.  Or at least, a man free from the worries and money problems that had always hampered him so terribly in his work.

With extraordinary courage he decided to abandon his home, family and friends in Tahiti and continue his life-long quest for an unspoilt, primitive island with a living culture and art.  His destination : the Marquesas Islands, seven hundred miles northeast of Tahiti, where Herman Melville @ years earlier had spent some happy months among the charming Typee cannibals.  A steamship with the proud name of La Croix du Sud assured a regular and surprisingly rapid service.  Having embarked in Papeete on September 10. 1901, Gauguin arrived at his last Island, Hivaoa, only six days later.

His choice was mainly dictated by the sight, in the Tahitian homes of various gendarmes and colonial servants who had been posted in the Marquesas, of marvelous collections of bowls, weapons and ornaments, all exquisitely decorated with intricate geometrical designs.  Gauguin was. of course, correct when he placed the arts of the Marquesas Islanders high on list of human achievements.  But he was definitely wrong when he believed, on the basis of the meager information that he cared to gather, that the islands were still, In 1901, inhabited by naked cannibals and master craftsmen.  The sad truth, as he soon discovered, was that the population, through the white men's usual gifts of diseases, firearms and spirits, by the turn of the century had dwindled to barely 4 000 forlorn and apathetic survivors whose only ambition was to be allowed to drink themselves to death as fast as possible.

Of sculptors and artists there were none left.  With bitterness Gauguin remarked : "Even if one is willing to pay high prices, it is no longer possible to find any of those splendid objects of bone, turtle shell or ironwood that the natives made in olden times.  The gendarmes have stolen them all and sold them to collectors.  Yet the colonial authorities have never thought of building a museum in Tahiti for the arts of the South Seas.  All these people who pretend to be so cultured, have no inkling whatsoever that true artists have existed in the Marquesas Islands."


Gauguin tried to find some consolation in the fact that he would at least be able to work in peace in the small village of Atuona, where he settled down.  The population consisted of 500 natives, who were as civilized as the Tahitians he had known in Mataiea and Punaauia, about a dozen European settlers, as many Chinese store-keepers, one Protestant missionary and a whole Catholic establishment with a bishop, several priests and lay brothers and half a dozen nuns.  In the center of the village Gauguin discovered a vacant site, belonging to the Catholic mission which, after, some wrangles, he managed to purchase for 650 francs.  The house that he hired the best local workmen to build for him surpassed in size and splendor everything seen in the Marquesas Islands so far.  The length was forty feet, the width eighteen, and it was two storeys high.  The ground floor was occupied by a wood carving studio and a kitchen, separated by an open, airy dining-room.  One floor up there was a small bedroom and a vast studio.  The entrance to the upper floor was surrounded by painted wooden panels.  On the lintel the shocked missionaries and nuns could read in large letters : MAISON DU JOUIR - House of Pleasure.

The name was very appropriate, for drawn by Gauguin's generous bumpers of rum and claret, large crowds of natives used to come every evening, gape at the pornographic photographs on the walls, and spend half of the night singing and playing.  Following the usual sequence of events, firmly established in Tahiti, Gauguin wasted no time in taking as his vahine a fourteen year old girl, Marie-Rose, who up to then had been a boarder in the Catholic mission school.  Before long, of course, she became pregnant.  Finally, she returned to her parents, who lived in a remote valley on Hivaoa. to give birth to a daughter, on September 14, 1902. This child, whose existence is much less known than that of her Tahitian half-brother Emile. Is still quietly living In the same valley.

But let us return to the beginning of 1902, when Gauguin had just moved Into his splendid House of Pleasure with Marie-Rose and two native servants, assured of a regular income and a peace of mind that he had never before experienced. As a result, he completed in a few months more than twenty superb pictures, among them Et l'or de leurs corps, in the Louvre, Paris, The call, in the Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, and Horsemen on the beach, belonging to Mr. Stavros S. Niarchos, New York. What distinguishes these pictures from those painted previously in Tahiti is above all the avoidance of all philosophical, religious and literary themes and allusions and the complete absence of extraneous ethnographical paraphernalia. In other words, what we witness here Is the last stage in Gauguin's long evolution towards a pure art where the subject matter is subordinated to formal, stylistic exigencies. This Is why Gauguin's main contribution to the history of modern art is not, in the first place, to have introduced new, exotic subjects - in this respect captain Cook's artists had discovered the South Seas one hundred years earlier - but to have destroyed all existing conventions, dogmas and academic taboos and rules that up to this time had confined the European artists to a narrow, pedantic realism. Or to use his own words, taken from a letter written in the Marquesas Islands, he had conquered for future generations of artists "the right to dare anything."


If this short account had been a work of fiction, this quite fulfillment of the artist's destiny. alone, in a far-away South Sea island, would have been a most fitting end. But it is not, and we must sadly continue the story by relating how, in reality, Gauguin had again to suffer excruciating pains and finally went under In a cruel struggle that achieved nothing but his own destruction. The main reason for this tragic turn the events took place during the last months of 1902 was his rapidly failing health, as a result not only of the diseases he had contracted in France, but also of his steady consumption of liquor, mostly absinth. his capricious eating habits and twenty years of unrelenting work. But there is no doubt that his ruin was hastened by the worries and mental sufferings that his enemies in Atuona caused him.

The first to react was the Catholic bishop whose wrath was provoked almost immediately by Gauguin's abduction of Marie-Rose and the many wild parties in his House of Pleasure. There was not much the bishop could do to stop Gauguin, but his irate sermons and warnings eventually scared most of the natives from having anything to do with the painter who thus became more and more isolated and lonely. The gendarmes, however, were equally powerful and dangerous enemies, although the first measure they took against him was rather ludicrous. Gauguin was summoned for driving without lights on his trap one evening after dark, though he could hardly have been a danger to the traffic, as there was no other vehicle in the whole of the Marquesas.

Unfortunately for the the painter, a new gendarme with much more Imagination and venom was sent up to Atuona shortly afterwards. To make things worse, Gauguin had in the meantime been unwise enough to write an open letter for a paper in Tahiti, attacking the governor himself, as well as private letters to various other colonial officials, complaining of the highhanded behavior of the gendarmes in the Marquesas. The governor then dispatched a magistrate to this island group with instructions to examine very closely the doings and sayings of that "unpatriotic and vulgar individual named Gauguin." It did not take the judge long to discover that the painter was guilty of having written a libellous letter, falsely accusing a gendarme of bribery. In a summons, dated March 27, 1903, he was ordered to appear in courc at Atuona on the thirty-first. The magistrate promptly dismissed Gauguin's request for a thorough and impartial inquiry, accepted without reserve the statement of the public prosecutor (who was a gendarme), fined Gauguin 500 francs and sentenced him to three months imprisonment. The injustice of this hastily pronounced verdict is rendered even greater by the fact that the legal provision under which it was passed applied only to libellous statements in print.

Gauguin, with every reason to feel deeply Indignant, dispatched a kmal request for a new trial to the court of appeal in Papeete by the next mail boat. He also wrote to his friend Charles Morice in Paris, asking him to influence public opinion in France by means of some outspoken newspaper articles about the scandalous conditions prevailing in the colony. But after having written half a page, he turned from old habit to artistic matters, and among other things passed the following accurate judgment on his own work : "You were wrong to say I was mistaken when I called myself a savage. And every civilized person knows that this is true; for what astonishes and baffles them in my art is this very fact - that I am a savage In spite of myself. Indeed, that is why it is inimitable... Everything I have learnt from anybody else has always been an impediment to me. Hence I can say : Nobody ever taught me anything. It is true that I know little! But I prefer the little I have created which is truly mine. And who knows, that little, when it has been turned to good account by others, will perhaps one day grow into something big ?"


Next he began to prepare his defence. But he had a shock and felt terribly weak. The pain in his fractured leg also returned and forced him to take laudanum and morphine. In order to get a complete rest he shut himself up in his house and did not invite anyone to visit him for a whole week. Then, early in the morning of May 8, he sent for the Protestant pastor who had many intellectual Interests and some medical knowledge. Gauguin asked him whether it was day or night and complained of pains "all over". He added that he had two fainting fits. But soon he turned abruptly to the discussion of art and literature. As on previous occasions, it seemed to do him good just to have someone to talk to, for the aching soon stopped. After a while the pastor left him to return to his interrupted school teaching.

At eleven o'clock, Gauguin's native neighbor Tioka, called to see him. In accordance with Marquesan etiquette, he announced his arrival by shouting 'Koke, Koke" from the bottom of the staircase. To his surprise he received no answer. After a short hesitation he climbed the stairs and discovered Gauguin lying an his bed with one leg hanging over the side. Not sure that his friend was really dead, Tioka resorted to a traditional method and bit his head. Gauguin remained silent and motionless. In a shrill voice Tioka intoned an ancient Marquesan death lament.

A quarter of an hour later the musty little bedroom was full of inquisitive villagers. The crowd was soon joined not only by the pastor - who attempted artificial respiration - but surprisingly by the Catholic bishop, who was accompanied by two lay brothers. This dignitary had an excellent reason for paying this final visit to a fallen foe : as Gauguin had been baptized into the Catholic Church, he was entitled to burial in consecrated ground. The local gendarme, too, was present in an official capacity : to see to that Gauguin, In death as In life, duly conformed to the regulations. When filling in the death certificate, he added, punctilious as ever, the following words, which have definitely a reproachful ring : "He was married and a father, but the name of his wife is unknown."

The following day at about two o'clock. four native pall-bearers struggled up to the Catholic cemetery above Atuona. There were no funeral orations and no flowers. The only necrology was the report that the administrator of the Marquesas Islands sent to his superiors in Papeete. The final paragraph read : "I have requested all creditors of the deceased to submit duplicate statements of their accounts, but am already convinced that the liabilities will considerably exceed the assets, as the few pictures left by the late painter. who belonged to the decadent school, have little prospect of finding purchasers."


"It was so simple to paint things as I saw them, applying a red next to a @lue without any special calculation. I was fascinated by golden figures in streams or on the sea-shore. Why did I hesitate to fix this glory of the sun on canvas? Because of the ancient European tradition. Because of the inhibiting fear of a degenerate people !" "it is very good for the young to have a model, but when they paint they should draw the curtain. It is better to employ a memory picture, for then the work becomes your own." "Never try unduly to perfect your work. The first impression is a delicate one, and the results fall off if you go on trying to Improve the details. That way you cool the seething b@-red lava into lifeless stone. Throw such stone away without scruple, though it looks like a ruby." "Women want their liberty. They have a righ to it. But they are not prevented from getting it by men. The day they cease to site their virtue below their navels they will be free. And perhaps healthier." "in Europe men and women have Intercourse because they love each other. In the South Seas they love each other because they have had intercourse. Who is right?" "Isn't it a mistake to sacrifice everything for the children, and doesn't It lead the nation to sacrifice those achievements which its most gifted and energetic members could attain? A man sacrifices himself for his children, who when they grow up sacrifice themselves for their children. And so on As a result everybody sacrifices himself. And the lunacy knows no end."

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We have included French Polynesia in some of our specials to the South Pacific, eg. our Kontiki Voyage and South Sea Dream Voyage. Another option is to create your own package to French Polynesia by utilizing the seperate travel components, like hotels, flights and excursions on the islands.

For a legal wedding the legal requires in French Polynesia that you remain at least 30 days in French Polynesia before the marriage. In practice this means you may only have a ceremonial wedding in French Polynesia (see also Tiki Village).

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