In this week’s “Canvassing the Masterpieces”, KAZoART takes you into Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian universe. Uncover the secrets of one of his most famous paintings, Merahi metua no Tehamana. Full of mysterious subtleties, let’s better understand the cultural and artistic significance behind this work.

The ancestors of Tehamana

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is undoubtedly one of the most famous European painters of the 19th century. For its time, his work was revolutionary. And as for the future, it laid the foundations for 20th century art. His style inspired avant-garde movements such as Fauvism and Cubism that began just after his death. Though he wasn’t able to see the fruits of his labour, he nonetheless remains a father of Modern Art.

In 1891, at the age of 43, Paul Gauguin abandoned his metropolitan life and settled in Tahiti. His move away from the influence of Western society allowed for his artistic inspiration to flourish.

© Daniel Blau – Rare photo by Jules Agostini, showing Paul Gauguin in Tahiti, 19 July 1896

There, he met Tehamana, also known as Tehura. She was a young girl from the Cook Islands. The two were married shortly after meeting. The painting’s title, “Merahi metua no Tehamana” translates to “Tehamana has several parents” or “Tehamana has many ancestors.” This corresponds with an inscription that can be seen on the bottom left-hand side of the table.

The latter refers to a Tahitian custom, known as the “Tamari’i fa’a’a’mu”, which is when biological parents would entrust the custody of their child to relatives. Later, Gauguin chose another titled, “The Elders of Tehamana” which refers to the Tahitian belief that they come from the union of the divinities Ta’aroa and Hina.

4 details you don’t want to miss

1. A young model

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According to Gauguin’s book, Noa-Noa, Tehamana was only 14 years old at the time. However, other studies of her life conclude that she was closer to 17 or 18 years old, which is nonetheless quite young.

Tehamana was probably Gauguin’s most important female model. She appears in many paintings made during this time and in particular, the famous Spirit of the Dead WatchingShe was thus a great source of inspiration for Gauguin. Here, she wears an enigmatic expression which has made many compare her with the Mona Lisa.

2. Tehamana’s outfit

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If we carefully observe this young bride, we notice that she is adorned with several accents. The most striking of these is her dress with blue and white stripes, which seems strange for a Tahitian to be wearing.

Its connotation is not a positive one: it is the clothing that European missionaries forced on Aboriginal women for ceremonies or holidays. Gauguin’s choice to represent her in this dress reflects his disillusionment but also the loss of his hope that Tahiti would be a “primitive paradise.”

Tehama has a red hibiscus flower on her left ear, which indicates that she is married. In her braided hair, we also see tiare flowers, the symbols of Tahiti. With her left hand, she holds a fan of braided fins, representing beauty.

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The two mangoes represent the wealth of Tahiti’s wildlife and by extension, the fertility of Gauguin’s wife.

3. A Tahitian goddess

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In the background, behind Tehamana, Gauguin placed a frieze on the wall. The female figure shown in front is none other than Hina, goddess of the Polynesian pantheon, often associated with the moon. It is believed that Hina was responsible for the creation of coconuts, a crucial resource for the islands.

Just over Tehamana’s shoulder, other figures, called orants, seem to be praying to Hina. This pose and layout is inspired by Hindu gods. According to some interpretations, orants could also represent evil spirits. The young Tehamana seems to be placed in parallel with the goddess, conveying Gauguin’s fascination with Polynesian myths.

4. Mysterious inscriptions

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The top of the composition is occupied by yellow inscriptions on a grey background. The latter are rongo-rongo signs: a writing system made up of 15,000 glyphs discovered on Easter Island in 1864.

However, since this writing has yet to be deciphered, Gauguin simply used some of the signs here, without knowing their true meaning. They give a mystical aspect to the painting, an atmosphere of secrecy and carefully-guarded cultural heritage.