Gauguin’s Bid for Glory

Of all the images created by the artist Paul Gauguin, none was more striking than the one he crafted for himself

Paul Gauguin's Tahitian mistress Tehamana modeled for many of his South Seas works, including the lush Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delightful Land), 1892. (Ohara Museum of Art)
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Gauguin acknowledged the demise of the old Tahitian order in his disquieting painting Arii Matamoe (The Royal End). The centerpiece is a severed head, which Gauguin coolly described as “nicely arranged on a white cushion in a palace of my invention and guarded by women also of my invention.” The inspiration for the painting, if not the decapitation, may have been the funeral of King Pomare V, which Gauguin witnessed soon after arriving on the island; Pomare was not beheaded.

Though a vehement anticleric, the artist couldn’t completely shake his Catholic heritage. His respectful The Last Supper contrasts the brilliance of Christ’s chrome-yellow halo with sober tribal carvings. In Nativity, a Tahitian nurse holds the baby Jesus, while a green-winged angel stands guard and an exhausted Mary rests.

In his notebooks as well as his imagination Gauguin carried the works that meant the most to him. Among them: photographs of Egyptian tomb paintings, Renaissance masterpieces and a 1878 auction catalog of his guardian Arosa’s collection, with works by Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet and Eugene Delacroix. Like many artists today—Jeff Koons, Richard Price and Cindy Sherman, among them—Gauguin expropriated freely from them all. “He didn’t disguise his borrowings, which were wide-ranging,” says curator Thomson. “That’s another way in which he is so modern.”

On the wall of his bamboo hut in Mataeia, Gauguin hung a copy of Olympia, Édouard Manet’s revolutionary painting of a shamelessly nude prostitute with a flower in her hair. Ever the mischief-maker, Gauguin led his young mistress Tehamana to believe it was a portrait of his wife. Tehamana was the model for several works in the exhibition, including Merahi Metua no Tehamana (The Ancestors of Tehamana), Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delightful Land) and Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch).

Though Manet’s masterpiece, which Gauguin had once copied, doubtless inspired Manao tupapau, Gauguin’s lover lies not on her back like Olympia but on her stomach, her eyes looking over her shoulder in terror at the tupapau, a black-hooded spirit, near the foot of the bed.

“As it stands, the study is a little indecent,” Gauguin acknowledged in Noa Noa, an account of his Tahitian travels he wrote after returning to Paris. “And yet, I want to do a chaste picture, one that conveys the native mentality, its character, its tradition.” So Gauguin created a back story for the painting, one that may or may not be true. He claimed that when he returned to the hut late one night, the lamps had gone out. Lighting a match, he so frightened Tehamana from her sleep that she stared at him as though he were a stranger. Gauguin supplied a reasonable cause for her fear—“the natives live in constant fear of [the tupapau].” Despite his efforts to control and moderate the narrative, the Swedish Academy of Fine Arts found Manao tupapau unseemly and removed it from a Gauguin exhibition in 1898.

Though Gauguin’s two years in Tahiti were productive—he painted some 80 canvases and produced numerous drawings and wood sculptures—they brought in little money. Discouraged, he decided to return to France, landing in Marseilles in August 1893 with just four francs to his name. But with help from friends and a small inheritance, he was soon able to mount a one-man show of his Tahitian work. Critical reception was mixed, but critic Octave Mirbeau marveled at Gauguin’s unique ability to capture “the soul of this curious race, its mysterious and terrible past, and the strange voluptuousness of its sun.” And Degas, then at the height of his success and influence, bought several paintings.

He turned his Montparnasse studio into an eclectic salon for poets and artists. Playing for recognition, he dressed in a blue greatcoat with an astrakhan fez, carried a hand-carved cane and enhanced his striking image with yet another young mistress, the teenage Anna the Javanese, and her pet monkey. She accompanied Gauguin to Pont-Aven, where Gauguin planned to spend the summer of 1894. But instead of enjoying the artistic stimulus of Brittany, Gauguin soon found himself in a brawl with Breton sailors, who were picking on Anna and her monkey, that left him with a broken leg. While he was recovering, Anna returned to Paris and looted his apartment, putting an emphatic end to their months-long relationship.


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