One of Paul Gauguin’s main interests throughout his career was the people and culture of Tahiti, where he lived for two separate stretches of time, first starting in 1890, and then again, after a brief return to France for financial reasons, starting in 1895, which would last until his final days. Among the main reasons for his retreat to such a remote location was his feeling that art in France had become rather formulaic, just a handful of techniques and artifice that could be taught to and learned by basically anyone.
As such, Paul Gauguin traveled to Tahiti to find, somewhere in the tropics, the purity and natural force he craved, away from the European moral and intellectual shortcomings, as he saw them. In a way, he was reverberating the overall feeling, shared by the fin de siécle Europeans, of this mix between disillusionment with Western values and the hope of finding the answer in the exotic and magical Other, be it Gérôme’s Muslim world, the Hudson River School’s escape to nature, or Gauguin’s travels to live among the Maori people in the South Pacific.
That being so, this oil on canvas, painted in 1899, and thus during Gauguin’s second and final voyage to the South Pacific, exemplifies that longing for something more pure and visceral. It portrays two Maori women, their breasts exposed with naturality, one carrying mango blossoms on a plate, while the other holds some flowers in a position that Gauguin saw in a Javanese temple and sometimes replicated in his work. The woman to the left, with the mango blossoms, would have been none other than Pahura, the artist’s mistress, or “island wife,” who lived with him on the island.
The beauty of the two women, who Gauguin also portrayed in other paintings, like Faa Iheihe and Rupe Rupe, is complemented by their nonchalant attitude towards their observer and to their nudity. They carry a very subtle grace and raw appeal, which is exactly what the artist was searching for when he left Europe.
Now in possession of the Metropolitan Art Museum, in New York, the painting was attacked by a mentally deranged Christian fundamentalist when on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. in 2011 but was not harmed due to a plexiglass cover.
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