Martin Gayford

Why would a dissolute rebel like Paul Gauguin paint a nativity?

Martin Gayford investigates how this splendid Tahitian Madonna came about and why religion was ever-present in Gauguin’s art

A young Polynesian woman lies outstretched on sheets of a soft lemon yellow. She is wrapped in deep blue cloth, decorated with a golden star. Beside her bed sits a hooded figure, apparently an older woman, holding a baby. In the background is a huddle of resting cows, suggesting that the setting is a barn or stable.

There is something familiar about the set-up — baby, young mother, farm animals — but it may take a while to notice certain details. The head of the woman on the bed is encircled by an area of darker yellow, which forms a sort of halo, and the baby’s head is similarly ringed with green. A subsidiary figure standing in the shadows has an odd protuberance, which looks a little like a wing. Then you realise that this is a painting of a most unusual kind: a Tahitian Nativity.

It was painted in 1896 by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who inscribed the title at the bottom left of the canvas: Te tamari no atua, which means — roughly, since Gauguin’s grasp of Tahitian was shaky — ‘The Child of God’. But why should Gauguin have produced such an unexpected image of what might seem, for a dissolute adherent of the avant-garde, such a surprising subject?

A standard interpretation is that the picture is connected with the fact that the artist’s teenage Polynesian mistress, Pahura, gave birth around Christmas time in that year (the baby, a little girl, lived only a few weeks). However, the scholar George Shackelford has pointed out that the picture must have been one of those the painter dispatched by ship to Paris in July 1896, so, Shackelford concluded, at the latest it could have been painted in the early months of Pahura’s pregnancy. It is equally possible that it has nothing to do with Gauguin’s impending fatherhood; that he simply decided to paint a Tahitian Madonna because, in a highly unorthodox fashion, he was a man with religion on his mind.

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