Tahitian Women on the Beach Paul Gauguin

Tahitian Women on the Beach: Paul Gauguin

Tahitian Women on the Beach is an 1890 painting in the Post-Impressionist style by the leading French artist Paul Gauguin.

Paul Gaugin painted this during his highly productive residence on the island and in the style characteristic of his maturity, made of bold colors and stark shapes. It should be borne in mind that two similar paintings by Gaugin exist with the same subject, the one customarily called The Women of Tahiti or Parau api (1892) having much more vivid colors and unelaborate shading.

Two women are sitting on what looks like a beach. Neither of them is looking our way. The one on the left is reclining and averting her back and flank to us, her face turned to the sand before her.

The one on the right is looking sideways out of the field. They communicate a sense of bashfulness or possibly unease, perhaps due to the fact that they are being observed attentively by a foreigner.

The woman on the left in Tahitian Women on the Beach wears a stark-red skirt with a white floral pattern — a Tahitian pareo. The white top leaves her right arm, the one she is using to prop herself on the side, uncovered. It is along this arm that we can observe the difference in elaboration between the two variants: in this case, the gradation of skin tones is rendered from light to dark beginning with her shoulder, the spot where the sun (hitting from the top-right corner) is impacting directly.

In this version of Gaugin’s scene, Tahitian Women on the Beach, the woman on the right is wearing a single-piece purplish dress resembling that of the Catholic missionaries. In the alternative version, she is wearing a two-color striped cloth tied at the shoulder, with both her arms and legs uncovered. Doubtless because of that clothing she is not, in that case, sitting cross-legged. In Tahitian Women on the Beach, she is also weaving strands of fiber with her fingers, presumably for the making of a basket.

Paul Gaugin most likely saw, in both of his versions, an opposition of lifestyles and cultures implied in the two women’s clothing. In the woman on the left — she who stays the same in both versions — he saw a combination of the eye-catching red skirt, bluish top, and yellow hair ribbon as representing a partly Westernised fashion, taste, and possibly culture.

The woman on the right, by contrast, represents in both versions an instance of tradition: either pre-Christian and tribal, or modest according to the Catholic ideal.

Arriving in the then-capital of Tahiti, Papeete, in April 1891, Gaugin was first struck by the city’s Westernised appearance, and disappointed at once, for he had come to the “uncivilised” Tahiti to live a simple life free from the artificial conventions of “civilization”. He was therefore particularly aware of cultural mixing on the island.

The alternative painting, The Women of Tahiti, painted one year later, seems to suggest that the Catholic robe did not, for Gaugin, testify sufficiently to the cultural opposition. It is also the version whose Tahitian title — Parau api: “news” — implies a context to this reconstructed artistic vision.

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Women on the Beach is located in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France.

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