France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903
[Femmes de Tahiti] 1891
oil on canvas
canvas 69.0 (h) x 91.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Countess Vitali in memory of her brother Viscount Guy de Cholet 1923
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in June 1891. The motives for his flight from Europe seem to have been mixed—artistic, domestic, political, aesthetic, and financial—and well rehearsed. Always a traveller—from the days of his childhood in Peru, his years in the merchant marines, and a disastrous journey to Martinique in the West Indies with Laval in 1887—Gauguin was searching for something that neither decadent Paris nor ‘primitive’ Brittany could provide. As he wrote to Redon in September 1890, from Le Pouldu:
Even Madagascar is too near the civilized world; I shall go to Tahiti and I hope to end my days there. I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state.1
While Polynesia was not what he expected, neither was Gauguin naïve: he understood there was to be no Utopia of unspoiled ‘nature’. As he wrote to his wife Mette in late June 1891: ‘Our missionaries had already introduced a good deal of protestant hypocrisy, and wiped out some of the poetry, not to mention the pox which has attacked the whole race.’2 The two Tahitian women that he painted in his first months on the island display an ambiguity of mood which seems to catch both artist and subjects. The women do not engage us directly. The woman on the left, dressed in a flowered pareu and white blouse, is formed from arabesques of lowered head, foreshortened body and leg, with a strong vertical arm. The woman on the right is clothed in a coverall pink missionary dress, a sequence of circles and ellipses from head to torso and arm, and crossed legs under her skirt. She is plaiting a basket, but looks out of the picture beyond the artist, towards our right. Her occupation may be traditional, but her clothing, like her friend’s, is made of cheap cotton imported from India or Europe.
The two figures are depicted close up, dominating the space. Behind them lie horizontals of the black sea with white wave-tips, the green lagoon and cream-coloured sand. Rich and simplified colours fill in the planes, with minimal distraction from impasto or painterly expression. Instead, the introspective, even melancholy women sit quietly on their beach. It was this introspective, symbolic quality that Gauguin introduced so powerfully into art after Impressionism. He rejected the artificial, mythical narratives of Moreau or Puvis for deeper truths of the human condition. These seemed pessimistic in the by-passed worlds of Brittany or the South Seas, as touched by modernity as the city of Paris.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Belinda Thomson (ed.), Gauguin by himself, Boston: Little, Brown 1993, p. 122.
- Thomson, p. 167.