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Paul Gauguin left us with a trove of artworks recording the landscapes and women he encountered in Tahiti, but, until recently, there were no known photographs of the artist on the French Polynesian island. Now we may have two; slightly blurry, they show a man some experts have identified as the painter enjoying a picnic with Tahitian women, or vahine, and other European companions.
As the New York Times reported, Munich-based dealer Daniel Blau and art historian Caroline Boyle-Turner, who recently wrote a book on Gauguin, both determined the man in the photos to be the painter. The images went on view last November in a brief exhibition at Galerie Daniel Blau titled The Painter Gauguin at Venus Point on 19 July, 1896, celebrating the end of a mystery that had emerged over a decade ago.
In 2004, a Parisian photo dealer had brought a small album to Blau’s attention. Among the 19th-century pictures of Europeans hanging out in Tahiti — a popular destination for foreigners since the late 1700s — was one group photograph of a man with his arms around two young vahine. Upon examining it, Blau’s wife thought the individual looked incredibly similar to other images of Gauguin, from photographs of him in France to his self-portraits. Wearing a flower crown, the figure is evidently giddy, with his lips grazing one woman’s cheek and his hand upon the breast of another who appears, to put it gently, less than happy.
Only in 2015, however, was Blau able to date the print and learn the identity of its maker, which helped to validate his suspicions. In July, two albums by the photographer Jules Agostini, a friend of Gauguin’s, went up for auction in Normandy. Agostini had met the painter around 1895, when Gauguin had just landed in Tahiti for his second stay, and the pair traveled around the islands of French Polynesia together. Blau acquired one of the albums, and it contained another copy of the group photograph, along with a similar one taken that same day, in addition to an image of Gauguin’s house in Tahiti. All three were labelled with descriptions and dates, with the group images indicating the festivities occurred at Point Venus on July 19, 1896 — although the caption made no mention of Gauguin. In the second photo, the alleged Gauguin gazes straight at us, leaning atop the woman he was kissing in the first.
Another individual who helps connect the Agostini photographs to Gauguin is one Dr. Gouzer, a doctor who worked on the ship the Duguay-Trounin. The Art Newspaper confirmed his appearance in one of the black-and-white photographs, standing next to a Tahitian woman named Faona, through his descendants. Gouzer, as the art historian Martin Bailey writes for TAN, was one of a small circle of Gauguin’s patrons in Tahiti. The two may have met at a hospital in Papeete, the island’s capital and center of commerce, when Gauguin was seeking treatment for just one of the many illnesses he contracted and suffered from during his six-year stint on the island.
According to TAN, Blau also speculates that the woman Gauguin was kissing and reclining on in these images is Pahura, his mistress, who frequently served as his often-nude model in a number of his artworks, including “Nevermore” (1897). Gauguin’s relationship with his young vahine — just one of perhaps many — is infamous: she would have been just a teenager, 14 or 15, at the time, perhaps embodying the idyllic “exotic” lifestyle the artist so desired and sought as he continually ventured far from his home country.
When the Agostini albums went to auction, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris acquired the second one, which also included the picnic photographs from that merry day, albeit without captions and dates. Asked to comment on the mysterious man in the images, the museum’s head of photographic collections, Christine Barthe, told TAN: “Some people see Gauguin in the album, but we need more than wishes.”
Like Gauguin’s relations with and feelings for the women he met in Tahiti, the true identity of the man in these pictures may just endure as a topic for speculation. For now, the photographs remain definitively as ambiguous records of an afternoon more than a century ago, capturing one moment on an island transformed by colonial encounters.