Of the extraordinary works that Gauguin created in the South Pacific, it was his sculpture and carvings that the artist believed to be the most important of his creative vision. Jeune tahitienne is an exceptional manifestation of Gauguin's accomplishments in this medium, and was carved during his first stay in Tahiti between 1890 and the summer of 1893. A few months after returning to Paris, Gauguin gave this sculpture to Jeanne Fournier, the nine-year-old daughter of the critic and collector Jean Dolent, having promised to bring her a gift from the tropics. In 1961, Fournier entrusted the sale of this work to Father Celas Rzewuski, a member of the Dominican Order, who consigned it to Sotheby's in London, where it was purchased by the present owner. This is the first time that Jeune tahitienne has been on view to the public in half a century.
According to Gray's catalogue raisonné, eight wooden sculptures, including the present work, survive from Gauguin's first period in Tahiti. Although they are all executed in the round, Gauguin carved most of them as reliefs in order "to produce flat decorative harmonies" (Anne Pingeot, Gauguin, Tahiti, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, p. 74). The present sculpture, however, is the only known fully-worked, three dimensional bust portrait. Unlike his other, more geometric or "indigenously-inspired" carvings from this period, the present work incorporates elements that would have been characteristically considered beautiful. The smoothly carved nose, lips and brow, for example, are similar to the features of the young women in his most celebrated paintings Te Aa No Areois (fig. 2) and Deux femmes tahitiennes (fig. 1), now in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in paintings in other major museums such as the Hermitage (fig. 3) and the National Galleries of Scotland (fig. 6). Like the stunningly beautiful faces in those seminal oils, Jeune tahitienne features the dark and serenely mysterious eyes that captivated Gauguin and the generations of admirers of his art.
Indeed, Gauguin's 1893 memoir Noa noa reveals that the artist himself could not help but consider the exquisite beauty of Tahitian women: "In order to understand the secret in a Tahitian face, all the charm of a Maori smile, I had been wanting for a long time to do the portrait of a neighboring woman of pure Tahitian race....[T]he majesty and uplifted lines of her forehead recalled these lines by Poe: There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion" (P. Gauguin, Noa noa, 1893, reprinted in The Lure of the Exotic, Gauguin in New York Collections (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p. 86). Gauguin's choice to explore the face here so intimately in the medium of sculpture, rather than in oil, reveals his preference for the expressive power of three-dimensional art.
Jeune tahitienne is a richly constructed work of art, bringing together elements of different media to form an object that is as enchanting and enigmatic as Gauguin's best paintings. The materials Gauguin used for this sculpture are mostly indigenous to the South Pacific, although he did have limited access to European art supplies through importers in Papeete. The head is carved from Tamanu wood, colloquially known as Solomon Islands wood, known for its variant shades of gold-brown and its luminous sheen. Gauguin appreciated the sensuousness of this material, which is beautifully exploited in the present sculpture. The figure's earrings, which are additions to the central block of wood, are made of boxwood, and the shell and coral necklaces are believed to have been strung together by the artist himself. There is evidently a piercing through the top of the left ear, which presumably held a flower. The bust of the figure is overlaid with a thin, white paper, on which Gauguin has painted a pattern. Indeed, while many Tahitians wore sarongs, a Tahitian girl would have been clothed more modestly, due to the influence of local missionaries.
Because Gauguin's Tahitian sculptures were truly some of the most avant-garde examples in Paris at the turn of the century, few of his contemporaries appreciated or understood them. "Speaking of the sculpture, as there is very little of this work, I don't want it to be scattered or to go into the possession of people who should not care for it," Gauguin wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfried from Tahiti in 1900: "And it would give me great pleasure if you would accept (not as a present, but as a proof of my friendship) all the wood carving from Tahiti." Thus, all the sculptures from Gauguin's second and final period in the South Pacific were sent to Daniel de Monfried in Paris, and were eventually donated by his daughter to the French National Museums.
The present work, created during Gauguin's first trip to Tahiti, has never been cast in bronze. It is unique and the only fully-worked bust portrait known to have been created by Gauguin. Like his greatest compositions in oil, Jeune tahitienne captures the mystery, allure and exoticism of the South Pacific with its intimate portrayal of this serene young woman. One of the more interesting features of the sculpture appears in the back, at the base of the neck. Along the bottom are the heads of two foxes, with a tail extending out from the right. Foxes appear as emblems of sexuality in other of Gauguin's well-known works, including The Loss of Virginity and his gravestone sculpture, Oviri. In the case of the present work, the foxes serve as Gauguin's emblematic "signature," just as the image of the dog had in other works from this period.
Gauguin recognized the importance of this powerful sculpture, and perhaps it was with great prescience that he gave this treasured work to the Dolent family, whom he believed would cherish and protect it, as they did. According to Dolent's biographer Pierre Pinchon, the sculpture remained with Dolent's daughter, Jeanne Fournier, until she entrusted it to a Dominican priest to sell at auction in 1961. Indeed, the consignor of record to that sale was Fr. Celas Rzewuski, a prominent member of the Dominican Order who had been a well-known figure in the artistic circles of Paris prior to his ordination. After the present owner bought Jeune tahitienne at that sale, it has never since been seen by the public eye.
Painted tamanu wood, pasted paper, red coral and shell
Height: 9 5/8 in. 24.5 cm
Hôtel Drouot, Vente Jean Dolent, Paris, December 17, 1919, listed in the catalogue as no. 112
Christopher Gray, Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin, Baltimore, 1963, no. 101, illustrated pp. 230-231
Jean Dolent (Charles-Antoine Fournier), Paris (acquired from the artist in 1894-95)
Jeanne Fournier (inherited from the above in 1909)
The Dominican Order, c/o Father Celas Rzewuski, Toulouse (acquired from the above and sold: Sotheby's, London, June 28, 1961, lot 46)
Acquired at the above sale