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13 / The Body

Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)
Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)
Artist / Origin Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)
Region: Europe
Date 1896
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 38.1 in. (97 cm.), W: 51.1 in. (130 cm.)
Location The Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia
Credit © The Gallery Collection/CORBIS

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Additional Resources

Eisenman, Stephen F., ed. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. London; New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Rosenblum, Robert. 19th Century Art. New York: Abrams, 1984.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism.” In The Expanding Discourse, edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard, 313–329. New York: Icon Editions, 1992.

Brooks, Peter. “Gauguin’s Tahitian Body” in The Expanding Discourse. Edited by Norma Broude and Mary Garrard. (New York: IconEditions,1992).

Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife)

» Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)

Paul Gauguin abandoned his native France for most of the 1890s to live on the remote Pacific island of Tahiti, a French colony since 1881.

He was attracted to the faraway island and what he saw as the primitive culture of its people. Gauguin shared the fantasy of many Europeans of the time that Tahiti was a sort of Garden of Eden, a tropical paradise.

There was an element of eroticism in the French cultural imagination regarding colonized lands such as Tahiti. They considered the island’s resources and tropical charms, as well as the island’s women, to be, in effect, freely available. Gauguin’s relationship to Tahiti is somewhat more complex. On the one hand, he strove to represent the richness of the island and the local culture and rituals in his work. On the other, Gauguin perpetuated the myths and stereotypes associated with Tahitian culture by freely transforming or even inventing seemingly authentic versions of these activities in order to make them look how he thought “primitive” culture should be.

This image of The King’s Wife epitomizes Gauguin’s erotic fantasy of Tahiti. The young, naked Tahitian woman seems to become part of the fertile landscape, both of which the artist represents as beautifully seductive. The central figure in Te Arii Vahine reclines on a grassy hill alongside several brightly colored ripe mangoes. There is a white cloth covering her groin, and she holds a large round fan behind her head. Her skin color, mask-like facial features, and the setting in which she is placed clearly mark her as a native. At the same time, her iconic pose is a reference to a European tradition of painting reclining nymphs, odalisques, and Venuses that dates back at least as far as the sixteenth century. Here, Gauguin merges those familiar erotic associations with the exotic, tropical imagery that fills his canvas.

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