Jean - Luc Baroni Ltd


Paul Gaugin

Paris 1848-1903 Atuona (Hiva Oa, The Marquesas)

The Head of a Tahitian Woman



Coloured chalks, heightened with touches of gold. Signed with the monogram P. Go in black chalk at the upper right. Numbered No.79-13 in red ink on the verso.

310 x 212 mm. (12 ¼ x 8 ⅜ in.)


Sold to a Private Collection.


PROVENANCE: Lambert collection; Anonymous sale, Paris, Palais Galliera (Ader Picard Tajan), 7 June 1973, lot 5; Private collection (Philippe Derazay?), Paris; acquired by a Private Collection in 2004.


LITERATURE: Richard Brettell, et al., The Art of Paul Gauguin, exhibition catalogue, Washington, National Gallery of Art and Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, 1988-1989, p.270, under no.148; Victor Merlhès, ‘Le «Cahier pour Aline»: Histoire et signification’, in Paul Gauguin,“A ma fille Aline, ce cahier est dédié.”, facsimile ed., Bordeaux, 1989, illustrated p.36; Ronald Pickvance, Paul Gauguin, exhibition catalogue, Martigny, Fondation Giannada, 1998, pp.234-235, no.78 and pp.279-280, no.78, illustrated p.133; Elisabeth Vedrenne, ‘Gauguin, l’atelier des tropiques’, L’Oeil, July-August 1998, illustrated p.73; Isabelle de Wavrin, ‘Un marché de pénurie’, Beaux-Arts Magazine: Gauguin-Tahiti, 2003, illustrated p.87; To be included in a forthcoming volume of the Gauguin catalogue raisonné by Daniel Wildenstein and Sylvie Crussard, published by the Wildenstein Institute.


EXHIBITED: Martigny, Fondation Pierre Gianadda, Paul Gauguin, 1998, no.78.


In June 1891, Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, where he had planned to live and work for the rest of his life. Although his first stay in the South Seas lasted only two years, after which he briefly returned to France, he was back in Tahiti by September 1895 and remained there until 1901, when he settled in the Marquesas. During his first Tahitian period, from June 1891 to June 1893, Gauguin spent the first several months of his stay making drawings and sketches of the people and landscapes of the island, with the intention of using them as studies for paintings. As he wrote in a letter to the painter Paul Sérusier in November 1891, ‘I am working hard and earnestly. I can’t tell if it’s good, for I’m doing a lot and at the same time it amounts to nothing. Not one painting as yet, but a great deal of research that can lead to something, many notes that will be of use to me for a long time, I hope...1 Among Gauguin’s works of this period are a series of powerful portrait drawings of the heads of Tahitian women, mostly drawn in charcoal, that were probably executed as autonomous works of art and intended for exhibition. The present sheet is, however, more highly finished than these drawings, and displays a more sophisticated choice of medium. Gauguin’s use of pastel or coloured chalks dates from his earliest days as a painter, and he continued to use the medium until around 1899, while in his later drawings he often combined pastel with washes of tone.

This large and beautiful drawing is related in subject to Gauguin’s painting Te Nave Nave Fenua, painted during the artist’s first visit to Tahiti and now in the Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki, Japan2. The painting, whose Tahitian title may be translated as ‘TheDelightful Land’, was painted around April and May of 1892, about a year after Gauguin had arrived in the South Seas. First exhibited at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1893, Te Nave Nave Fenua was acquired at the Vente Gauguin two years later by the artist’s friend and fellow painter, the Irishman Roderic O’Connor.

While the present sheet is not in itself a study for the woman in Te Nave Nave Fenua, both the drawing and the painting depict a bird-like lizard, or chimera, near the head of the figure. The presence of this creature juxtaposed with the head of the woman in the painting Te Nave Nave Fenua, has generally been regarded as symbolic of the Biblical story of the temptation of Eve, translated by Gauguin into a tropical setting. As one contemporary Parisian critic wrote, describing the painting, ‘a fictive orchard offers its insidious flora to the desire of an Eve from Eden whose arm extends timorously to pluck a flower of evil, while the beating red wings of the chimera whisper at her temples.3

The subject of Te Nave Nave Fenua was repeated by Gauguin in a number of drawings, watercolours and prints, notably in a colour woodcut of 1893-18944, while a small watercolour drawing of a detail from the painting, showing the head of the woman juxtaposed with the chimera, was pasted onto the cover of Gauguin’s manuscript Noa Noa5. It was in Noa Noa, written in 1893, that the artist commented on his particular interest in the faces of the women he met in Tahiti: ‘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. One day, when she had been bold enough to come into my hut to look at some pictures and photographs of paintings, I asked her if I could do it...And the majesty and uplifted lines of her forehead recalled these lines by Poe: “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”6

The present sheet remained unknown to scholars before its reappearance on the Paris art market in 1973. Four years later, however, a closely related watercolour was discovered during the restoration of Gauguin’s notebook Cahier pour Aline. The Cahier pour Aline, a partly illustrated scrapbook of fifty-four pages on which Gauguin was working between December of 1892 and March of 1893, is dedicated to his daughter Aline. She never received the book, however, as she died of pneumonia in January 1897, at the age of nineteen. The Cahier pour Aline remained with Gauguin until his death, and is today in the Bibliothèque d’Art et d’Archéologie Jacques Doucet in Paris. In 1977 four pages of drawings which had been previously stuck down at the ends of the notebook were lifted and revealed. One of these newly discovered drawings is a profile head almost identical to the present sheet, to which it must certainly be related7. The drawing in the Cahier pour Aline is drawn in pen and watercolour in a pointillist manner, similar that Gauguin also used for a drawing of Te Nave Nave Fenua in the Musée de Grenoble8.

Also closely related to the present sheet is another drawing by Gauguin, showing the profile head of the same woman but in reverse, the appearance of which is recorded in an archival photograph in the E. Druet collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris9.


1. Quoted in translation in Daniel Guérin, ed., The Writings of a Savage: Paul Gauguin, New York, p.54.

2. Marla Prather and Charles F. Stuckey, ed., Gauguin: A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p.212, colour plate 68; Brettell, et al., op.cit., pp.268-271, no.148; Claire Frèches-Thory, George T. M. Shackelford, et al., Gauguin-Tahiti: l’atelier des tropiques, exhibition catalogue, Paris, Grand Palais, 2003, p.86, no.83. The painting measures 92 x 73.5 cm

3. Achille Delacroche, ‘D’un point de vue esthétique: A propos du peintre Paul Gauguin’, L’Ermitage, January 1894, p.37.

4. Brettell, et al., op.cit., pp.334-338, nos.172a-n; Colta Ives et al., The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exhibition catalogue, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002, pp.106-107, nos.80-82.

5. Frèches-Thory, Shackelford et al, op.cit., p.148, no.106, pl.6.

6. Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, 1893; quoted in translation in Guérin, op.cit., p.83.

7. Merlhès, op.cit., illustrated in colour on the cover; Gilles Manceron, ‘Koké and Tépéva: Victor Segalen in Gauguin’s Footsteps’, in George T. M. Shackelford and Claire Frèches-Thory, Gauguin – Tahiti: The Studio of the South Seas, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 2004, illustrated p.75; Bernard Comment and François Chapon, Doucet de fonds en combles: Trésors d’une bibliothèque d’art, Paris(?), 2004, illustrated p.83.

8. Pickvance, op.cit., p.239, no.90 and p.284, no.90, illustrated p.146; Frèches-Thory, Shackelford et al, op.cit., p.87, no.84.

9. Merlhès, op.cit., illustrated p.36. An image of the Druet photograph is in the documentation files of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris (Druet no.2956).

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