Gauguin's lush images of Tahitian women amidst the splendor of the tropics are a wealth of sensual beauty. This gorgeous canvas was painted on the island's southern coastal region of Mataiea in September or October 1892, about a year into the artist's first extended stay in French Polynesia. The title of the painting, Te poipoi, refers to the morning ablutions of the young woman in the foreground. We can imagine Gauguin's voyeuristic pleasure in watching this intimate moment beneath a canopy of banyan and mango trees. Painting this scene must have been irresistible to him. During his first trip to Tahiti Gauguin devoted a number of compositions, in oil (see figs. 1 & 2) and in woodcut (Guerin no. 41), to depicting the local women at their tropical toilette. In 1893 he even made this a vignette in his illustrated manuscript, Noa noa, and provided the following narrative: "On the road back, .... The vahines took the arm of their tanés again ... their broad bare feet stepped heavily in the dust along the way. When they came near the river of Fataua, everyone dispersed. Here and there some of the women, hidden by stones, squatted in the water, their skirts lifted to their waists, cleansing their hips soiled by the dust of the road, refreshing the joints that had become irritated by the walk and the heat. Thus restored they again took the road to Papeete" (Paul Gauguin, Noa noa, 1893).
Te poipoi is a refreshingly modern and daring interpretation of the ritual of the bath, one of the most symbolically loaded themes in the history of western art. Throughout the Renaissance this subject was associated with the Christian metaphors of renewal, innocences and absolution of sin, but after the Enlightenment its religious associations began to diminish. By the 19th century, images of the bather had become unapologetically titillating and devoid of any contextualizing narrative. Edgar Degas presented one of the most well-known modern interpretations of this theme by focusing exclusively on the supple bodies of his young models squatting over their metal tubs (see fig. 3). Gauguin would have been well-acquainted with these images because he had exhibited with Degas in 1887 at the final Impressionist group exhibition in Paris. Given his familiarity with the art of the avant-garde and his impressive knowledge of old master paintings, Gauguin must have been aware of symbolic resonance of this tantalizing picture. As it is both a depiction of a modern-day Garden of Eden and a colonialist idealization of the Orient, the powerful Te poipoi is a veritable lexicon of art historical quotations.
In the catalogue for the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum,The Lure of the Exotic, Gauguin in New York Collections, Colta Ives discussed the present work in relation to its placement in the trajectory of art history. "At the very center of Gauguin's art are his many, often monumental depictions of women and his creative revisions of the traditional female icons: Venus, Eve, the Madonna, and, to a lesser extent, the Old Testament's spied-upon nude bather Susanna (see fig. 4). He may be said to have contributed to and thus continued a tradition of perpetual reinvention that went back much further than Titian's curvaceous Venus and sped on to Picasso's fragmented Demoiselles d'Avignon. Gauguin was resolute in his role as iconoclast, quickly upping the ante on the tartly painted courtesans in Manet's Olympia, which he copied just before leaving France for Tahiti.... It is no wonder that Gauguin's contemporaries found his art maddeningly confusing; he was at work on several different fronts at the same time. The 'course sailor' of Gauguin's self-characterization was not only hugely intelligent but also well read, well traveled, and well versed in the history of art. Inventively, he turned his departure from France and physical break with Western culture into an opportunity to supplant old European icons with new, exotic ones. It is fascinating, even amusing, to compare the goddesses and odalisques of older masters with their new fashioned South Seas counterparts" (Colta Ives, "Gauguin's Ports of Call," in the Lure of The Exotic (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 8-9).
Although the young women in this picture have not been identified, Gauguin was romantically involved with a local girl named Tehura, who was a frequent model around the time he painted this work. To Gauguin's western contemporaries, these robust, partially nude women were assumed to be sexually permissive, but in actuality the artist was surprised how reserved they were in comparison with the women he knew in France. In fact, it is well documented that Gauguin was dissillusioned by just how 'un-exotic' his surroundings were. When he arrived in Papeete in 1891 he was faced with the same European-imposed customs and laws that he had left back in France, and decided to leave the capital city for Mataiea. His pictures, however, show nothing of how directly colonialization had impacted the Tahitian people, whose colorful pareos were even manufactured in Europe (see figs. 5 & 6).
In Te poipoi, as in his best Tahitian compositions, he presents us with a highly idealized version of a timeless paradise, untouched by western influence. Gauguin described the sensual pleasures of the South Pacific, with its floral-scented air and available young women in his many letters and journals. The following account could even be taken as a description of the present work: ''I returned to my work and bliss followed upon bliss. Every day when the sun rose, shining light filled by home. The gold from Tehura's face shone all around and we often went together to refresh ourself in a nearby stream, simply and naturally, just as though we were in Paradise" (quoted in Eckhard Hollman, Paul Gauguin, Images from the South Seas, New York, 1996, p. 26).
Richard Field has compared the present work with two others that Gauguin completed around the same time, and has drawn several conclusion about how the artist rendered the image. "Te poipoi is the most interesting of this group. The landscape, with its very characteristic tree forms and casual dispersion of the two figures, is... not very far from the photographs of the period.... Whether Gauguin actually consulted photographs for Te Poipoi cannot be stated at present; but the fact remains that there is much here that indicates a close approach to indigenous scene. The increasing looseness and overlapping of the brushstrokes in numerous areas are to be read in conjunction with the return to nature - as a kind of recording of optical experience rather than a synthetic equivalent of it. Conversely, there are very striking areas of pattern carried over from the previous abstract works. For example there are the blue shadow on the light orange ground, the chalk-orange shore in the background, and the worked-over shapes of the water (which may be seen in Haere Pape [see fig. 7, Barnes Foundation] and Aha oe Feii [see fig. 8, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersberg). Once again, the internal evidence presents traces of the conflicting stylistic forces as play within Gauguin's art" (Field, op. cit., pp. 161-62).
When Gauguin returned to France in August 1893, he he brough back with him over sixty canvases and selected the best among them, including the present work, for a one-man exhibition at Durand-Ruel. Of the forty-four canvases in that exhibition, eleven were sold, and his profit enabled him to live comfortably in Paris for several months. But after suffering a number of visits with his estranged family in Copenhagen and a broken leg in a street brawl in Pont Aven, Gauguin longed to return to the South Pacific. In order to raise money for the trip back, he sold several of his recent canvases at auction at Hôtel Drouot, including Te poipoi, and in June 1895 set sail for Tahiti, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Fig. 1, Paul Gauguin, Tahitiennes sur la plage, 1892, oil on paper laid down on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection
Fig. 2, Paul Gauguin, Tahitiennes pres d'un ruisseau, 1893, oil on canvas, sold: Sotheby's, London, June 27, 1995, lot 8
Fig. 3, Edgar Degas, Femme se baignant, 1885, pastel on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 4, Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens, Susanna and the Elders, oil on wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1890
Fig. 5, Contemporary postcard of a woman washing, Tahiti. Photograph by Maxime Bopp du Pont, collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fig. 6, Evite, Atupa and Naehu (Tahitian Dancers), circa 1880-90, photograph by Mrs. S. Hoare
Fig. 7, Paul Gauguin, Haere pape (Toilette matinale), 1882, oil on canvas, The Barnes Foundation, Merion
Fig. 8, Paul Gauguin, Aha oe feii? (Eh quoi, tu es jalouse), 1892, oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Oeuvres récentes de Gauguin, 1893, no. 22
26 3/4 by 36 1/4 in. 68 by 92 cm
Charles Morice, Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1919, no. 1, listed p. 171
J. de Rotonshamp, Gauguin, 1925, p. 137
Christian Zervos, "De Delacroix à nos jours: une exposition -programme à la Galerie Georges Petit," Cahiers d'Art, Paris, 1930, pp. 251-54
Town and Country, New York, November 1930, illustrated
Maurice Malingue, Gauguin, de peintre et son oeuvre, Paris, 1948, no. 182, illustrated
Lee van Dovski, Gauguin, Paris, 1950, no. 276, illustrated p. 349
Bernard Dorival, Le Carnet de Tahiti, Paris, 1954, listed pp. 17-18, 22 & 36
Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Catalogue raisonné, Paris, 1964, no. 485, illustrated p. 196
Begnt Danielsson, Gauguin in the South Seas, London, 1965, discussed p. 135
G.M. Sugana, L'Opera completa di Gauguin, Milan, 1972, no. 309, illustrated p. 105
Richard S. Field, Paul Gauguin, The Paintings of the First Voyage to Tahiti, Ph.D dissertation, New York and London, 1977, no. 42, catalogued p. 328 (as dating from summer-fall 1892)
John Rewald, Post-Impressionist, from van Gogh to Gauguin, New York, illustrated p. 532
Bronwen Nicholson, Gauguin in the Pacific, Auckland, 1982,
Belinda Thomson, Gauguin, London, 1987, illustrated
Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, Vente Gauguin, February 18, 1895, lot 11
Sale: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 16, 1908, lot 31
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired at the above sale)
Max Pellequer, Paris (by 1930)
Galerie Georges Petit, Paris
David W. T. Cargill, Lanark, Scotland (by 1935)
Bignou Gallery, Paris and New York (by 1940)
M. Knoedler & Co., New York
Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. Payson, New York (acquired from the above on January 24, 1945)
Joan Whitney Payson, New York (by inheritance from the above)
Thence by descent to the present owner