In spring 1891 Gauguin traveled to the South Pacific island of Tahiti, then a French colony. He hoped to find an enchanting paradise, far from the modern metropolis of Paris. However, by the time of Gauguin's arrival Tahiti had been profoundly altered by French colonization: poverty and sickness were rampant. Still, in his paintings of the island Gauguin included elements of the imaginary, configuring Tahiti as a pre-modern land of leisure. His use of bright, flat, and unrealistic colors and his interest in recovering a "pure" subject, closer to nature, were greatly influential to the next generation of European artists, including the Fauves and German Expressionists.
Gallery label from 2011.
The Polynesian goddess sits on a blue-and-white cloth. Gauguin's style fuses various non-European sources: ancient Egyptian (in the hieratic pose), Japanese (in the relative absence of shadow and modeling, and in the areas of flat color), and Javanese (in the position of the arms, influenced by a relief in the temple of Borobudur). But there are also signs of the West, specifically through aspects of the pose derived from a work by the French Symbolist painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The color, too, is eclectic: although Gauguin claimed to have found his palette in the Tahitian landscape, the exquisite chromatic chords in The Seed of the Areoi owe more to his compositional eye than to the island's visual realities. In the origin myth of the Areoi, a Polynesian secret society, a male sun god mates with the most beautiful of all women, Vaïraümati, to found a new race. By painting his Tahitian mistress Tehura as Vaïraümati, Gauguin implied a continuity between the island's past and its life during his own stay there. In fact, Tahiti had been profoundly altered by colonialism (the Areoi society itself had disappeared), but Gauguin's anachronistic vision of the place gave him an ideal model for his painting. This vision was particularly powerful for him in its contrast with the West, which, he believed, had fallen into "a state of decay."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 37.