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Two Artists in Tahiti, Worlds Apart

By Frederic Hunter / February 4, 1991

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.

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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?

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.''