Vowing to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional,” Paul Gauguin embarked on an artistic odyssey to rural Tahiti, where he found refuge in an uninhibited tropical paradise. Populated by sensuous nudes fishing, bathing and riding horses, his Tahiti paintings are a series of contradictions. They show all the hallmarks of colonialism, and yet they also endeavor to preserve native mythology at a time when it was being erased by Christian missionaries. The scenes they depict are largely imaginary, and yet they faithfully represent the inner truth of Gauguin’s experience on the island.
Gauguin worked in a cloisonnist style, rendering natural forms in bold, flat colors separated by dark contours. In each piece he sought to unify the outward appearance of natural forms and his feelings toward them with the more abstract beauty of line, color and form. He would, for example, use sensuous pinks and purples to represent sand that was, in fact, a drab volcanic brown. Though he was able to sell paintings to fund his stay in Tahihi, the importance of his work would not be fully understood until after his death, when he was rediscovered by Picasso, Matisse and the French avant-garde.