Text by Deanna MacDonald
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In March 1892, Gauguin wrote to a friend in France describing a painting he had recently completed, which he considered his best work since arriving in Tahiti a year earlier. ‘A yellow angel points out Mary and Jesus to two Tahitian women. Mary and Jesus are likewise Tahitians and naked, except for the paréo, a flowered cotton cloth tied to suit one’s fancy. In the background very dark mountains and blossoming trees. Foreground emerald green. To the left bananas…’
Entitled Ia Orana Maria (Tahitian for ‘Hail Mary’), the painting embodied Gauguin’s life-long fascination with the exotic. He had traveled to the South Pacific hoping to find artistic inspiration in ‘primitive’ cultures living in harmony with nature and unsullied by European values. Instead, he found a world already transformed by colonial rule and Christianity. Gauguin probably learned the term ‘Ia Orana Maria’ from the Catholic missionaries who had converted Mataiea – the region where Gauguin painted this image – long before the artist arrived. But in his paintings Gauguin created the world he sought, interweaving the mythologies and imagery of the islands with that of the West and his own imagination.
Gauguin himself had a relatively exotic background – brought up in Peru, educated in France, Gauguin had traveled the seas as a merchant marine and later became a successful stockbroker in Paris. He started painting in the 1870s, studying with his friend Pissarro and after he lost his job in the 1882 stock market crash, took up painting full time. He exhibited with the Impressionists but by the late 1880s, he had begun his nomadic search for a simpler, more meaningful way of painting and of life. He first traveled to remote Brittany, where, inspired by local folklores and customs, he painted images of flattened, simplified forms and bold colour imbued with symbolic meaning.
He employed this same Symbolist vocabulary in Polynesia in works like this one, in which he transforms a Christian subject into a tropical dream. Gauguin derived the scene’s unusual composition from a photograph of a bas-relief from the Javanese temple of Borobodur. Mary is depicted as a beautiful, Tahitian girl wearing a red print sarong with the Christ child, a naked, sturdy-looking toddler, sitting on her shoulder. Both have gold halos and Christ leans his cheek on his mother’s head, looking directly at the viewer. The fruit at Mary’s feet is laid out in a ‘fata,’ a platform used by the Polynesians to make offerings to the gods. Further back, two young girls, naked from the waist up, hold their hands in prayer as if worshipping. Beside them, partially obscured by tropical leaves and flowers, is an almost Botticelli-like angel with colourful wings and long black tresses who seems to act as their intercessor with the holy pair.
Gauguin would produce numerous paintings of his exotic paradise, despite his less than idyllic life there. Short of funds, he returned to Paris briefly in 1893 to raise money, selling this painting for 2000 francs. Returning to Polynesia, he continued to paint but descended into poverty and morphine addiction, dying of syphilis in 1903.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1892 Frederic, Lord Leighton: The Garden of the Hesperides, Port Sunlight, UK, Lady Lever Art Gallery
1892 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Dancing, Paris, Musée d’Orsay