GAUGUIN'S DISCOVERY OF PRIMITIVE ART
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
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
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.
THE CHOICE OF TAHITI
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
"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.
IN HIGH SOCIETY
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
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
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."
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
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
AMONG THE NATIVES IN MATAIEA
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.
THE MARRIAGE OF KOKE
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
Gauguin was Immediately fascinated by bw and wooed her
In this qukk and matter-of-fact way :
- You are not afraid of me?
- Will you live in my hut for good?
- Have you ever been ill?
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
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
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
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
GAUGUIN'S SELECTIVE EYE
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
THE COURAGE OF DESPAIR
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
site, next to the schoolhouse in Punaauia, is today marked
by a sign-post.
personal contribution consisted of some carved wooden
panels which he nailed to the walls of the bedroom and the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
only managed to sell about two dozen copies of each issue.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
gendarmes have stolen them all and sold them to
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."
HOUSE OF PLEASURE
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 ?"
DAY OR NIGHT?
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
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
SOME APHORISMS AND MUSINGS BY GAUGUIN
"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