Paul Gauguin Oil on Canvas 1896
I was having a hard time deciding which of the hundreds of thousands of Nativity paintings I should share for Christmas. Then I remembered this very interesting and unusual painting by Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin during his second stay in Tahiti. I thought I would share it as it is not very well-known and is quite an unusual take on the very familiar scene.
Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Gauguin. I prefer the Renaissance masters for religious images like the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Pieta. But it’s the history, the story behind the story that interests me with Gauguin. Like Picasso, it’s not the aestheticism I enjoy, it’s the reason he painted what he did. (To read my blog on Picasso’s Guernica, click here Guernica).
Two Decembers ago, Kip and I attended a lecture at the St. Louis Art Museum about Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and its influence on his work, which was quite interesting. Although he originally left his wife and kids to go to Tahiti to get inspired and get rich, it seems that he spent a great deal of his time conquering very young teenage girls. He returned to Paris to a relatively positive reception to his new work, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Tahiti to take up residence (without his wife and children).
The first time he went to Tahiti was only about two years after his short-lived stay at The Yellow House with Vincent Van Gogh, which ended with Van Gogh cutting off his own ear. Although their relationship was strained to say the least, they continued corresponding until Van Gogh’s suicide about six months later. Although it doesn’t seem that Gauguin used the loss of his contemporary as a reason behind the first trip, I can certainly understand how it could have been.
Van Gogh desperately wanted Gauguin to be the first of his friends to join him at The Yellow House to start an artist colony. When Gauguin discovered he couldn’t tolerate living in Arles with a genius that happened to also be unbearable to live with, he had to go. Van Gogh never recovered. Gauguin had to feel some regret, some remorse, and to some degree, like the cause of Van Gogh’s quick decline and death. A remote island full of beautiful young girls seems like a logical place to go.
In 1895 Gauguin returned to Tahiti to live with his very young Tahitian wife, Pau’ura, who was also his most widely used model for many of his nudes. It was during this period in 1896 when he painted Be Be and Nativity. Pau’ura was most likely the model for Mary in Nativity, seen below.
It’s wildly annoying to me that Be Be and Nativity are not in the same museum, as they are obviously meant to be viewed together. Painted in the same year, both paintings show the same scene from different angles. Nativity shows a Tahitian Mary on a very yellow bed, with animals around her. The color scheme is so typical of Gauguin, bright, bright yellow with rich browns.
But Be Be is the painting I enjoy the most. At first glance one might think it’s just a painting of a Tahitian woman holding a baby. Then you notice the angel to her right, and the halo encircling the baby’s head. The same livestock are in front of her as in Nativity. And then you notice at the very top of the painting Mary herself, also with a glow about her. Then it seems obvious that this is indeed, the same location, the same baby, the same stable.
So who is this woman? Some believe she is Pau’ura. Honestly, I don’t buy that. She may have been the model, but I have serious doubts that a playboy like Gauguin was so infatuated with his young wife he made her the center of a religious painting, particularly because he had multiple young girls in his bed.
I tend to believe she is a representative of humankind in general. Mary is long ago, in the background. Jesus is being held by the native girl front and center. She is us. She is every Christian that holds Jesus as the center of their religion. She is just a regular, normal girl, with Christ at the center of all things.
Today Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. They continue to hold the Christ child lovingly, just as the young Tahitian girl does for Gauguin. Merry Christmas!