Two Artists in Tahiti, Worlds Apart

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ON June 5, 1891, just a century ago, John LaFarge, America's premier artist, left Tahiti after a stay of about three months. He was traveling with - in fact, as the guest of - historian Henry Adams and both men had been adopted into the Tahitian nobility. Four days later another artist arrived in Tahiti: Paul Gauguin.

I read about LaFarge and Adams just missing Gauguin the same week that I attend a major exhibition of paintings. It includes four Gauguin paintings, all done in Tahiti.

I wonder: Why am I looking at the Tahiti paintings of Paul Gauguin and not those of John LaFarge?

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Hmm. A fertile field for speculations. I try a few of them out.

Maybe I look at Gauguin paintings (and only read about LaFarge) because Gauguin was French and worked (at least initially) in France when that country was the center of the art world.

By contrast, the United States in the 1890s was hardly an artistic center. It was not even recognized as a world power until 1898 when it won the Spanish-American War.

France may have been the art capital of the world, but Gauguin could hardly support himself in Paris. In fact, he worked as a poster-paster for a time. By contrast, the US, rapidly developing into an industrial giant, offered LaFarge a steady range of commissions. These included murals and stained-glass windows in Boston's Trinity Church, probably his best-known work.

MAYBE we see Gauguin paintings today because Gauguin was not only in the right country, but he also had the right pals: other artists (mostly impoverished, it's true) who were also exploring artistic frontiers.

But who were Gauguin's friends? There was Van Gogh, who had to be committed to an asylum while Gauguin was living with him in Arles. Emile Schuffnecker, a spare-time painter Gauguin had known while working at the Bourse in Paris. Charles Laval, a loyal admirer who had gone with Gauguin to Panama in 1887, both of them traveling steerage in an overcrowded sailing ship. Daniel de Monfried, a painter who owned a sailing boat, shared Gauguin's love of the sea, and acted as his business agent. Charles Morice, a literary critic and poet who shared Gauguin's love of women and saw him as a misunderstood genius.

LaFarge counted among his friends not only Adams, but architects H.H. Richardson and Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. All were the leading figures of their day. They should have been the best possible friends an artist could desire.

Gauguin and Van Gogh must have challenged each other as artists. And we know that Gauguin talked art theories with the young Emile Bernard when they painted together in Brittany. Of their discussions, Gauguin researcher Bengt Danielsson notes that ``they agreed that it was the painter's chief object to express intense visions and strong ideals, rather than to reproduce objective reality.'' And that working together, they began to produce ``more decorative compositions, which were tapestry-like and two-dimensional.''

Lafarge's conversations with his contemporaries are less substantiated, making one wonder, for instance, what LaFarge and Saint-Gaudens talked about when they met.

Maybe Gauguin's secret is that he was impoverished. And that in going to the South Seas, he also went on a quest.

He went there partly in search of a cheap place to live and work. An official handbook of the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition, which featured exhibits from French colonies, made Tahiti sound enticing. It read, ``Born where there is no winter, in a country where the soil is richly fertile, the Tahitians have only to lift their hands in order to harvest the bread-fruits and wild bananas which form their staple food.'' Furthermore, serious-minded Frenchmen wishing to farm in Tahiti were offered passage free.

But Gauguin seems to have had a deeper quest. He was seeking his identity as an artist. By separating himself from the pack he would make his mark.

Gaugin was also seeking identity as a man, and to separate himself philosophically. ``Your civilization is your disease,'' he said. ``My barbarism is my restoration to health.'' Some of this was mere posturing. Nonetheless, he went.

By contrast, when LaFarge visited the South Seas as Henry Adams's guest, he went as a tourist, merely to take a look. He knew who he was.

Fastidious by nature, as mannerly as an old-world courtier, LaFarge dressed ``habitually in black,'' says Kaori O'Connor in her introduction to a reprinted edition of LaFarge's ``An American Artist in the South Seas.'' O'Connor continues, ``everything in his appearance suggested `refinement in its very essence.''' Others made similiar observations. ``LaFarge prided himself on faithfulness to tradition and convention,'' wrote his friend Henry Adams, ``He was never abrupt and abhorred dispute.''

UNLIKE Gauguin, LaFarge did not find barbarism in the South Seas. He found that ``a rustic Greece was still alive.'' Samoa seemed to him to prove ``that Greek art is not the mere invention of the poet - the refuge of the artist in his disdain of the ugly in life.''

LaFarge's and Gauguin's entrances into the islands could not have been more different.

LaFarge came as a patrician and an intellectual. ``We are the first great Americans who ever came to these islands as great chiefs traveling for pleasure,'' he wrote. He and Adams studied Polynesian society and chieftainship. Adams even measured Polynesian body parts, playing at anthropological comparisons.

These travel companions prided themselves on understanding local ``sociopolitical complexities'' better than did Robert Louis Stevenson, then a resident of Samoa. And they enjoyed, from afar, the charms of ``old gold women'' extolled to them by their friend Clarence King, who had been the first head of the US Geological Survey.

By contrast, within his first three months in Tahiti, Gauguin realized that few commissions for portraits would come from Papeete's colonial administrators. He then moved into the hinterlands, lived in a bamboo hut with a ``thick layer of dried grass on the earthen floor'' and enjoyed the charms of ``old gold women'' close up.

While LaFarge mused about socio-political complexities, Gauguin consciously set about building a legend. When he returned to France two years later, he wrote ``Noa Noa,'' a purported journal of his Tahiti stay and a work designed to set the scene for an exhibition of his Tahiti paintings.

Although its publication was delayed by his friend Morice, who dallied in editing it, the journal eventually appeared in the influential La Revue Blanche. Later it was published as a book. Pandering to popular notions, particularly male notions, of idyllic, primitive life, freed from the constraints of civilization, ``Noa Noa'' carried on the literary tradition of Pierre Loti's ``The Marriage of Loti'' and Herman Melville's ``Omoo'' and ``Typee.'' And it did what it was intended to do: It popularized Gauguin and his art.

Kaori O'Connor writes that LaFarge saw in Gauguin's work ``a hideous distortion of all he had found to be beautiful and good in the Pacific and an artistic slander that gave the lie to the truths he had worked so hard to convey in his own art.''

It's probably not surprising that LaFarge, having read ``Noa Noa,'' should write to Henry Adams about that ``wild Frenchman,'' that ``stupid Frenchman.'' The journals, he said, ``were very foolish and probably very much affected....''

Creating the legend was one thing. Living it was something else, as Gauguin's letters to de Monfried from the South Seas demonstrate. In March, 1892, he wrote, ``I've really been quite sick.... The doctor at the hospital was pretty anxious and believed that I was done for.'' In November: ``My health is no good... All these worries about money are killing me, and I have aged a great deal.'' In April, 1897: ``The moment I begin to get on my feet, and have a little money so that I can work for a few months, some unusual catastrophe comes along.'' In February, 1898: ``Immediately after the mail arrived, and having received nothing from Chaudet [who published ``Noa Noa'' in La Revue Blanche], I wanted to kill myself, since with my improved health I could not hope to die naturally.''

By contrast, LaFarge's letters are those of a consumately self-possessed gentleman. Writing from Japan, which he visited with Henry Adams in 1886, he writes, ``We are coming into Yokohama; it is like the picture books. Anything that I can add will only be a filling in of detail.'' And later on the same trip: ``Everything here exists for a painter's delight, everything composes or makes pleasant arrangements....

Eventually Gauguin became the prisoner of the legend he created. In 1902 De Monfried advised him against a plan to return to Europe. ``In returning,'' he wrote Gauguin, ``you will risk damaging that process of incubation which is taking place in the public's appreciation of you. At present you are a unique and legendary artist, sending to us from the remote South Seas disconcerting and inimitable works which are definite creations of a great man who, in a way, has already gone from the world.''

``You should not return,'' he stated plainly. ``You are already as unassailable as all the great dead; you already belong to the history of art.''

SURELY the legend is part of the reason why we see Gauguin paintings in all the great museums these days and only a few minor works by LaFarge. But the legend would not remain vital today if there was only shoddy work to support it.

Gauguin's quest seems profound - or at least profoundly in tune with the coming 20th century sensibility. By contrast, LaFarge's South Seas work seems only pretty, the impressions of a tourist.

While Gauguin was concerned with identity, LaFarge painted, O'Connor writes, nothing that was ``crude, primitive, violent, ugly, nor even strange.''

We encounter LaFarge when we read about Henry Adams, while we encounter Gauguin in museums.

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