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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Feminists might see Anna’s action as payback for Gauguin’s long abuse of women. After all, he abandoned his wife and children, sought out underage lovers and lived a life of hedonism that ended in heart failure exacerbated by syphilis. Still, he often expressed sadness over his failed marriage and missed his children in particular. And he created far more female images than males, sharing with his Symbolist contemporaries the idea of the Eternal Feminine, in which women were either seductive femmes fatales or virtuous sources of spiritual energy. His handsome, enigmatic Tahitian women have become icons of modern art.

Then there are the elaborate door carvings that identify Gauguin’s final residence in the remote, French Polynesian Marquesas Islands, some 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. He went there at age 53 in September 1901 to find, he said, “uncivilized surroundings and total solitude” that will “rekindle my imagination and bring my talent to its conclusion.” The door’s sans-serif carved letters spell out Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure)—effectively, a place of ill-repute. Perhaps to taunt his neighbor, the Catholic bishop, the portal features standing female nudes and the exhortation to “Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses”—“Be in love and you will be happy.” Tate curator Christine Riding suggests that the work may not be as anti-feminist as today’s mores might indicate. Gauguin may be offering women a liberating idea: Why shouldn’t they enjoy lovemaking as much as men?

Gauguin spent his last days battling colonial authorities over alleged corruption, as well as what he considered unwarranted regulations of alcohol and child morality. In native dress and bare feet, he also argued—in court—that he should not have to pay taxes. “For me, it is true: I am a savage,” he wrote to Charles Morice, the collaborator on his memoir Noa Noa. “And civilized people suspect this, for in my works there is nothing so surprising and baffling as this ‘savage in spite of myself’ aspect. That is why [my work] is inimitable.”

As his health deteriorated, Gauguin considered returning to Europe. His friend Daniel de Monfreid argued against it, saying the artist was not up to making the trip and that a return to Paris would jeopardize his growing reputation. “You are at the moment that extraordinary, legendary artist who sends from the depths of Oceania his disconcerting, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has disappeared, as it were, off the face of the earth.”

Sick and near-penniless, Gauguin died at age 54 on May 8, 1903, and was buried in the Marquesas. A small retrospective was held in Paris that year. A major exhibition of 227 works followed in 1906, which influenced Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. Gauguin was famous at last.

Ann Morrison is the former editor of Asiaweek and co-editor of Time’s European edition. She now lives in Paris.


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