Gauguin: The Final Years of an Outsider

Go back to Gauguin Biography Part 2-Developing as Gauguin

In June of 1891, Gauguin arrived in Papeete with a romantic image of Tahiti as an untouched paradise, largely influenced by Western publications of experiences abroad such as Pierre Loti’s Le Mariage de Loti (1880).  However, by the time Gauguin arrived in Tahiti it was no longer the paradise he had been expecting.  French colonization had greatly corrupted Tahiti.  In 1767 the native population of the island was about 150,000. By 1891, it was about 8,000.  The people of Tahiti took on Christianity, today French Polynesia is 54% Protestant and 30% Roman Catholic. Only 10% of the population falls into the “other” religion category, meaning that less than 10% actually believe in the traditional mythology. The traditional culture-the religion, mythology and art of Tahiti- was lost before Gauguin arrived.

Gauguin refused to be discouraged and he sought what he considered to be the authentic aspects of Tahitian culture. He made an appointment to meet with Pomare V, the last King of Tahiti, for the third day after his arrival.  Unfortunately, Pomare V died just hours before he was supposed to speak with Gauguin.  The artist spent a few months in the capital before moving to a smaller village, which he hoped would have been less influenced by the French.  The village he chose was Mataiea on the south coast of the island.  He got to know the local chief, Tetuanui.  The chief provided valuable insights into traditional Tahitian culture.  To give his art the feel of being truly Tahitian, Gauguin often gave his pieces Tahitian titles.  Gauguin’s marriage to Tehamana, thirteen years of age at the time, was possibly his closest connection to Tahitian culture, and definitely his source of inspiration.  When his autobiography was published, the public would know her as Tehura.

Despite all this effort to exhibit traditional Tahitian culture, Gauguin often mixed other influences in with his experiences on the island to achieve the primitive iconography he was searching for.  For example, the Tahitians did not have idols.  The idols of Gauguin’s artworks were mainly influenced by those of other Oceanic traditions.  Gauguin had never seen them, but the photos and drawings of sculptures in Oceana, such as the mo’ai of Easter Island, played a large part in his works.

In July 1893, Gauguin returned to France, his home country.  However, when he arrived he found that it was no longer his home.  He had lost his position in the avant-garde.  He was an exotic foreigner who was having a very public affair with the Tahitian woman known as “Anna the Javanese.”  In 1894 he decided to publish a book, an autobiography of his life in Tahiti.  He would illustrate this with his own woodcuts.  It would be called Noa Noa.  However, between his autobiography and a solo exhibit at the Durand-Ruel he found little acceptance.  In July 1895 he returned to Tahiti.  He would only return to France once to paint at Pont-Aven.

Gauguin found a new home in Punaauia.  He spent most of his time working on his art.  His works became more rounded and modeled.  His most famous work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897) was created during this relatively calm period of Gauguin’s life. 

However in September of 1901 Gauguin left the French colony.  He was tired with the increasing Western influence in Tahiti and found the remote island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia as a home.  There he built his new home which he called, “the house of pleasures.”  He continued to write and draw despite an advancing case of syphilis which restricted his mobility.  His main focus during this time was his memoir, Avant et après (French for Before and After).  At the island, Gauguin argued with authorities frequently.  In disputes between the officials and the natives he always sided with the native people.  He was sentenced to some time in jail and he had to pay a fine.  At 54 years of age he died on May 8, 1903 before serving any of the time in jail. He is buried in Calvary Cemetary in Atuona.

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"It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block."

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