Mahurin Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects



Document Type



When a plethora of primary sources exist from an artist, a tendency persists for the art historian to focus on an artist’s personality when analyzing or interpreting that artist’s work. In the case of Paul Gauguin and his Tahitian works, his personality faults, extreme character, and uncouth notions and motivations become the concentration of much scholarship and can lead to a misjudgment of the artist’s depiction of the Tahitian natives and culture. This paper examines how Gauguin represented a foreign peoples and met the goals he pursued under Primitivism, Symbolism, and Synthetism by analyzing the cultural contexts of Fin-de-siecle France and Tahiti and the synthesis of these contexts into his paintings. Gauguin was influenced and driven to travel by the modernist and imperialist views of the Universal Exposition of 1889, the shift in style and ideology from Naturalism and Impressionism to Symbolism, the Roussean focus on the primitive, and the exotic and romantic literature of colonial pamphlets and voyager writings. Gauguin fully adapted these ideas and notions, yet was taken aback by the unexpected, Europeanized, Tahitian actuality, as seen through his letters and shift in style. Gauguin’s involvement and awareness of the remnants of traditional Polynesian culture allowed for a new complex image of Tahiti to emerge. A sampling of Gauguin’s work, Manao Tupapa’u, Te Tamari no Atua, and O. Tahiti, can illustrate the artist’s way of incorporating these complexities into his paintings, producing a unique and accurate depiction of Tahitian culture.


Art Practice | Other International and Area Studies | Social and Cultural Anthropology