When Will You Marry? is an 1892 painting in the Post-Impressionist style by the leading French artist Paul Gauguin. This work is located in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.
Analysis of When will you Marry?
Paul Gauguin went to Tahiti to run away from “everything that is all artificial and conventional”. He was seeking an “Edenic paradise where he could create pure, ‘primitive’ art”. He was severely disappointed as Tahiti was already colonized in the 18th century, in fact approximately two-thirds of the indigenous people were wiped out by diseases brought by the European colonialists. Most had already converted to Christianity.
His paintings of Tahiti rejected reality and continue to perpetuate the myth that Tahiti was still “primitive” where women walked around in the nude. When Will You Marry?, depicts two Tahitian women, one dressed in traditional Tahitian dress and the other in a Western-style dress.
The woman in the traditional dress wears a white flower behind her left ear which shows she is looking for a husband. She is in a relaxed sitting position. The woman in the western style dress is sitting upright.
She is seen as strict and threatening compared to the other woman. Naomi E. Maurer has likened this pose to a mudra seen in eastern religions such as Buddhism. At the bottom is an inscription “NAFEA Faa ipoipo” which translates to “When Will You Marry?”.
Gauguin had an interest in the Tahitian language but he never tried to learn how to speak it. Despite being married in Europe, Gauguin had several relationships with Tahitian women. In his travelogue, he wrote that he married a thirteen-year-old girl named Teha’amana. Like his depictions of Tahiti, his travelogue is a dishonest retelling of his stay. The marriage was arranged by her family. It was common for French Colonialists to have ‘native’ wives and the marriages were not legally binding. It is possible her family did this for financial or social reasons. She became pregnant from this marriage. Teha’amana was also a model for many of the Tahitian paintings.
Art historian, Nancy Mowll Mathew noted that the “exotic sensuality” of his Tahitian paintings is so evident that it’s the most important part of these paintings. After he left Tahiti, he never saw this Teha’amana or the child again even after returning to Tahiti. Teha’amana refused to see him and remarried a Tahitian man.
In his return, he somehow believed in the Tahiti he built in his mind and was disappointed a second time. When Gauguin returned to Europe, his Tahitian paintings were not received as well as he would have liked. However, in recent years, the painting, When Will You Marry? became one of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
While Gauguin’s painting still has aesthetic beauty one can help to think of the damage he had done while creating them. Not only of the models but also his continuing the myth that Tahitian people were made of sexually available women. There are no depictions of Tahitian men as if they don’t exist. He never saw the Tahitian people anything deeper than his sexual appetite. Despite these paintings and the artist being problematic, as educated readers, we can learn the dangers of exoticizing people.