Artist Paul Gauguin is a complicated character in the canon. In the context of girl studies, he is immensely less noble than in traditional art history. He left his wife and children in France and went to find paradise in French Polynesia in the early 1890s citing his opposition to ‘civilized’ modern urban society in Europe. Here Gauguin strongly criticized Europe’s role in the loss of innocence and traditional ways of Tahitian life, but at the same time he took his presumed right of sexual favor with young Tahitian girls, thus contributing in equal measure to Europe’s corrupting position.

Paul Gauguin, Marahi Metua No Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Ancestors), 1893, The Art Institute of Chicago. Wiki Commons.

Paul Gauguin, Marahi Metua No Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Ancestors), 1893, The Art Institute of Chicago. Wiki Commons.

His paintings of very young Tahitian girls are indeed beautiful, but is this because they were intended to be sexual and artistic muses for both himself and the viewer? This makes them problematic. Gauguin had multiple affairs and had married and fathered a child with a 13 year old within his first year abroad. This portrait of his young wife, Tehamana, shows the cultural and psychological distance between his and her worlds.

Unusually, she is shown fully clothed in European dress, which Gauguin would have disliked as this would symbolize the civilizing and Christianizing of the Tahitian people. Tehamana herself may not be fully accepting of these missionary influences, and she is shown within a scene that evokes her cultures’ traditions, albeit inaccurately.

The title, Merahi metua no Tehamana or Tehamana has many ancestors also demonstrates her social context- she belongs, whereas he does not.

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