Paul Gauguin, The Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao Tupapau), 1892, oil on canvas, 28½” x 36½”, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Gauguin’s Trouble in Paradise

Paul Gauguin’s brightly colored paintings of the tropics represent a paradise that dis not necessarily exist.  A leader of the Synthetist movement in painting in which artists used colors freely to express their personal feelings about a subject, Gauguin represented his life in Tahiti as much more idyllic than it really was.

In 1891, Gauguin abandoned his wife and five children to move to French Polynesia to escape modern life and immerse himself in a primitive culture.

This is a painting of when Gauguin found his new, fourteen-year-old bride, Tehura, lying awake one night terrified that a ghost – the Siprit of the Dead – was watching her.  In the painting, the ghost is pictured as an old woman wearing a black shawl at the left.

“The Spirit of the Dead” could also refer to the European audience that saw the painting when it was on display in Paris during Gauguin’s first and final visit back to France in 1893.  Like fellow Parisian Manet, Gauguin cast the art public in an unflattering role as colonists threatening the beautiful, primitive culture of Tahiti.

Then again, it’s not hard to imagine that the girl was frightened of Gauguin.

Other works of art by Paul Gauguin

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