The Ancestors of Tehamana, or Tehamana Has Many Parents
Paul Gauguin’s restless search for a life of "ecstasy, calm, and art" took him twice to the French colony of Tahiti. He confronted the fact that the idyllic paradise he had imagined did not exist. Nevertheless, he searched for it in his art. The resulting works based on drawings of local people and motifs, and on various books, prints, and photographs. Radiant portrayals of a tropical paradise, they are also poignant essays on the discrepancy, in an age of imperialism, between exoticist fantasy and indigenous reality.
This portrait depicts Tehamana, Gauguin's young companion during much of this period, wearing a high-collared, "Mother Hubbard" dress of the sort imposed by missionaries on the local population. Her clothing is an obvious reference the pervasiveness of European influence, but her plaited fan, regal bearing, and elusive smile suggest Gauguin’s desire for access to something more profound.