Merahi metua no Tehamana

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Merahi metua no Tehamana
Paul Gauguin - The Ancestors of Tehamana OR Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistPaul Gauguin
TypeOil painting
LocationArt Institute of Chicago, Chicago

Merahi metua no Tehamana (English Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana) is an 1893 painting by the French artist Paul Gauguin, currently in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.[1] The painting is a portrait of Paul Gauguin's native wife Teha'amana during his first visit to Tahiti in 1891-1893. This marriage has always provoked controversy because of the manner it was contracted and Teha'amana's age: the marriage was arranged and completed in the course of a single afternoon and Gauguin claimed Teha'amana was just thirteen years old at the time.[2][3]

A sculpted head is also known to be a portrait of Teha'amana. She is assumed to have posed for numerous other paintings of the time, including the celebrated Spirit of the Dead Watching.[4]


A photograph by Charles Georges Spitz circa 1888 often reproduced as a portrait of Teha'amana, although there is no evidence for the identification.

Teha'amana was the native wife of Paul Gauguin during his first visit to Tahiti in 1891 to 1893.[5][6][7] It was extremely common at that time for French colonists to take native wives; the wives simply referred to as vahine, Tahitian for "woman". These vahines were often very young, as was the case with Teha'amana, their marriage being arranged by their family for reasons of status or financial advantage. The daughters involved usually entered such marriages willingly, the marriages generally being non-binding and the girl free to return home at any time.[8] Indeed, of Gauguin's three vahines, the two he took after Teha'amana did eventually return home while Teha'aman herself declined to continue their relationship when Gauguin returned to Tahiti in 1895.[9] Teha'amana undoubtedly saw herself as conventionally married according to her local customs, but for Gauguin the marriage was clearly a temporary arrangement.[10][11][12] Nevertheless he did profess a tender love for Teha'amana in his journal Noa Noa [ca].[a] Pierre Loti's Le Mariage de Loti, a book that influenced Gaugin's decision to travel to Tahiti, was an immensely popular account of such a marriage twenty years earlier, although in that case the marriage was actually a fictional composite of many casual liaisons indulged by Loti during a two-month visit to Papeete. In Loti's account his wife was fourteen years old, while in Gaugin's account Teha'amana was just thirteen years old.

The name Teha'amana is formed from the definite article te, the causative particle ha'a and the substantive mana ("strength"), and thus signifies "giver of strength", hence its frequent occurrence in ancient prayers and folklore.[13] In his account of their idyll together, Gauguin described how in the evenings Teha'amana would recount their ancient myths as they lay in bed.[14] Teha'amana was nevertheless a Christian, as evidenced by the missionary dress she wears in the portrait, and would have known nothing of Tahitian mythology. Bengt Danielsson, the Kon-Tiki anthropologist, notes that Teha'amana recounting the old myths is an especially barefaced fiction, because not only were these largely forgotten, they had always been withheld from women. All Gauguin's accounts of ancient Tahitian religion in Noa Noa were copied from other sources without adequate acknowledgement.[15][16][b]

Having a vahine brought practical advantages regarding food supplies. This was because Tahitian families were self-sufficient in food. The staples of breadfruit and bananas were gathered high in the mountains on a weekly basis, while fish was abundant in the lagoons. Pigs were hunted in the undergrowth. As a consequence there was no trade in foodstuffs and offering food was regarded as an act of charity. Gauguin had no time to gather food for himself, even if he had the skill and strength, if he was to paint as well. He was thus forced to provision himself with very expensive tinned European food from the local Chinese merchant. Having a vahine meant at least he had access to wild fruit and fresh shrimp gathered by her, as well as her own family's extensive food stores.[17][18]

Gauguin's account of Teha'amana in Noa Noa, where he refers to her as Tehura, is mainly confined to their marriage, contracted in a single afternoon in the course of a planned excursion round the island, and a few other episodes including notably the genesis of his painting Spirit of the Dead Watching.[19] Danielsson was able to find some oral and civic sources in the course of his researches.

Teha'amana's family came from Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands. Before settling in Tahiti, they spent some time in Huahine, one of the Society Islands, where Teha'amana was born.[20] In Tahiti they settled at Fa'aone, some fifteen miles to the east of Gauguin's bamboo hut at Mataiea, where Gauguin encountered them at some time during or after November 1891, taking Teha'amana as his vahine the same day. No birth certificate is known to confirm her age, but it is likely she was in her early teens, as were his two subsequent vahines.[21] She was pregnant by August 1892 according to a letter of Gauguin's,[22] but there is no further record of the child: Danielsson thought it had been aborted, Mathews thinks it more likely it was adopted, as was commonly the custom in Tahitian society. Gauguin records Teha'amana was at the quay on 14 June 1893 to wish him a traditionally tearful departure from Tahiti. When Gauguin returned in 1895, Teha'amana had married again, but nevertheless spent a week with him before returning to her husband, according to a letter Gauguin sent Monfreid.[23] Gauguin makes no further mention of Teha'amana. After his death, when he had become famous, Teha'amana made no effort to come forward as his vahine. Mathews thinks this may indicate there was in reality no single Teha'amana, or that she was simply indifferent to his memory as a matter of little consequence.[24]

After Gauguin left in 1893, Teha'amana remained in Mataiea, working at first for Chief Tetuanui, but soon marrying a young Tahitian boy, named Ma'ari, from neighbouring Papara. She bore him two sons, one of whom was still alive when Danielsson was researching Gauguin. From him, Danielsson gathered the information that the reason Teha'amana declined to live with Gauguin in 1895, despite generous gifts of bead necklaces and brass rings, was that she was repulsed by the syphilitic sores covering his entire body.[25][c] Danielsson was able to locate a death certificate showing that Teha'amana died on 9 December 1918 in Mataiea from the Spanish flu epidemic that carried off a quarter of Tahiti's native population. She is buried in Mataiea, although her tombstone bears no indication of her relationship with Gauguin. A circa 1888 photograph of a young Tahitian girl by Charles Georges Spitz is often reproduced as one of Teha'amana, although Danielsson points out there is no evidence at all for the identification.[27]


Charcoal study, c. 1891-3, Art Institute of Chicago [28]

The inscription below the idol reads "MERAHI METUA NO | TEHAMANA".[1] This means "Teha'amana has many parents", a reference to Teha'amana possessing foster-parents as well as her natural parents in accordance with the faʼaʼamu [fr] Tahitian custom (Gauguin had to negotiate with both sets of parents when arranging the marriage).[29] The placement of the inscription below the idol may also emphasise the belief that all Tahitians descended from the union of the ancient deities Hina and Ta'aroa.[30]

Danielsson thought the painting a farewell portrait, depicting Teha'amana in regal state dressed in her best churchgoing clothes and holding a plaited palm fan, a symbol of beauty.[29] The red tiare flower she wears at her left ear signifies she is married.[31] When he was researching his book, Danielsson showed a photograph of the portrait to a native, Puto'ura a Ta'iterafa'ato'a, fifteen years old in 1893 when the portrait was painted. Ta'iterafa'ato'a recognised Teha'amana at once, identifying the scar tissue above her right eye as the result of an accident she suffered when she was very young riding a pony, defying her parents.[32] The portrait was bought in at Gauguin's 1895 Hôtel Drouot auction at only 300 francs and subsequently gifted to Daniel de Monfreid, Gauguin's great champion in Tahiti, suggesting it held sentimental value for Gauguin.[30]

Charles Stuckey remarks that the two ripe mangoes, placed on a low table to Teha'amana's right, probably represented the bounty of Tahiti, if not Teha'amana's fertility herself. The idol is taken to be a representation of Hina, borrowed from Hindu sculptures presenting the life-giving gesture. As a counterfoil, the heads that hover above each of Teha'amana's shoulders are evil spirits, suggesting a dialogue between good and evil or between life and death. The glyphs behind Teha'amana's head are Rongorongo glyphs from Easter Island, although Gauguin's examples are imaginary. These glyphs had been discovered scarcely thirty years earlier and Gauguin would have seen examples both at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and in Papeete, where a local bishop researching them had a number of examples in his care. The glyphs have never been deciphered and Gauguin's intention was probably to emphasise the impenetrability of Tahitian culture. In his Noa Noa account, he remarked he found Tehama'ana herself impenetrable, thus perhaps the Mona Lisa expression he gives her in the portrait.[30][33]

The portrait is closely based on a charcoal study and, taken together with the unduly short proportions of the arms, suggests the portrait may not have been painted directly from the model.[30]

Other portraits[edit]

Sculpted head, wood carving, circa 1892, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The only other portrait known certainly to be of Teha'amana is a sculpted head in the form of a hollow mask in the Musée d'Orsay.[4] The wood carving is curious because it carries a roughly hewn figure of Eve in its inside. Stuckey suggests this is a reference to the Edenic paradise Gauguin said he had found with Teha'amana, but observes also that Gauguin had questioned her fidelity in his Noa Noa account and suggests the figure might also represent fantasies on Teha'amana's part as Eve the temptress, the greens eyes of the polychromed head perhaps signifying jealousy.[34]


  1. ^ See Solomon-Godeau p. 326 for a feminist deconstruction of the Gauguin pastorale. Danielsson (1965) called Gauguin's love for Teha'amana "anthropological", i.e. not transferable across cultures, and noted that Gauguin at this time concealed his affair with Teha'amana from his estranged wife Mette Gad in Copenhagen, as well as taking care to describe Mette as his "late wife" to Teha'amana (p. 115).
  2. ^ Wadley (1985), acknowledging that Teha'amana would have known nothing about the ancient myths, examines pp. 108-19 the question of Gauguin's plagiarism from Jacques-Antione Morenhout's 1837 Voyage aux îles du Grand Océan, defending Gauguin on the grounds that Noa Noa was always conceived as a wedding of fact and fiction. He gives some examples where Morenhout is indirectly credited, for example in a remark, "Who created the sky and the earth? Morenhout and Tehura answered me ...!"
  3. ^ Sue Taylor p.203 presents sources, including a letter from Armand Séguin to Roderic O'Conor, indicating that in early 1895, in Paris, Gauguin broke out in a syphilitic rash that delayed his departure for Tahiti by several months as he sought treatment.[26]

References and sources[edit]

  1. ^ a b "The Ancestors of Tehamana OR Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana), 1893". Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
  2. ^ Smart, Alastair (19 September 2010). "Is it wrong to admire Paul Gauguin's art?". The Daily Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Archived from the original on 28 March 2015. Retrieved 9 February 2015.
  3. ^ Rodgers, Paul (23 January 2011). "Gauguin's British relative disputes artist's notoriety". The Independent. Archived from the original on 14 February 2015.
  4. ^ a b Danielsson (1965) pp. 118, 126
  5. ^ Thomson pp.156-7
  6. ^ Mathews pp. 179-82
  7. ^ Danielsson (1965) ch. v. The Marriage of Koke in Gauguin in the South Seas pp. 107-35
  8. ^ Danielsson (1965) p. 108
  9. ^ Danielsson (1965) pp. 182, 207, 228, 255
  10. ^ Thomson p. 164
  11. ^ Danielsson (1965) pp. 115-7
  12. ^ Pollock, Going Native or The Politics of Prostitutionalization in Avant-Garde Gambits: Gender and the Colour of Art History pp. 35-42
  13. ^ Danielsson p. 112
  14. ^ Paul Gauguin Noa Noa p. 91 ff.
  15. ^ Daniellson p. 158
  16. ^ Solomon-Godeau pp. 326, 328
  17. ^ Danielsson p. 93
  18. ^ Solomon-Godeau p. 325
  19. ^ Paul Gauguin Noas Noa p. 61 ff.
  20. ^ Danielsson (1965) p. 109
  21. ^ Mathews p. 179
  22. ^ Paul Gauguin Letter IX to Monfreid, incorrectly dated 31 March 1892 rather than September 1892 according to Danielsson (1965) n.94
  23. ^ Paul Gauguin Letter XVI to Daniel Monfreid
  24. ^ Mathews p. 213
  25. ^ Danielsson (1965) p. 182 n. 157
  26. ^ Taylor p. 203
  27. ^ Danielsson (1975 - revised French edition) p. 123 n. 57
  28. ^ Stuckey pp.224-5
  29. ^ a b Danielsson (1965) pp.126-7
  30. ^ a b c d Stuckey pp.288-9
  31. ^ Potter, Caroline. "This Side of Paradise: Rupert Brooke and the South Seas". Archived from the original on 10 February 2015.
  32. ^ Daniellsson (1975 - revised French edition) p. 144 n. 66)
  33. ^ Paul Gauguin Noa Noa pp. 71-2
  34. ^ Stuckey p.274

External links[edit]