Gauguin’s Romantic Notion of the Noble Savage

“Out there at least, with winerless skies overhead and wonderfully fertile ground underfoot, Tahaitains have only to lift their arms to gather their food; therefore, they never work.Whereas in Europe men and women satisfy their needs only after ceaseless toil…” -Gauguin, Letter to Williamson, late 1890

Where did Gauguin’s idealization of the savage come from? He believed that life was better or more moral during the early stages of mankind or among primitive peoples, like the Tahitians. This Romantic conception opposed Hobbes’s famous statement the life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” insisting instead that civilization ruined everything.

Romantic Notions: the Nobel Savage

The phrase ‘nobel savage,’ expressing the concept of natural man unencumbered by civilization and divine revelation, has often been ascribed erroneously to Rousseau (Jean-Jaques, not Henri). In English, ‘noble savage’ first appeared in John Dryden’s play The Conquest of Granada in 1672:

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

More than a few people found this idea ridiculous; Dickens, for example, put the term nobel savage to sarcastic effect in 1851, when he used it as a title for a satirical essay. Dickens states his position quite clearly:

“To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition. … I don’t care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.”

Dickens was strongly disassociating himself from 19th century Romantic Primitivism, long before it influenced Gauguin’s thinking or developed into a branch of Modern Art.

“Having lost all their savagery, having run out of instinct and, you might say, imagination, artists have wandered down all sorts of paths, looking for the productive elements that they themselves do not have the strength to create…” Gauguin, Racontars de Rapin, April 1903

Gauguin in Tahiti arrived in 1901 with delightful notions of what savages were–he hoped himself to develop that part of himself. His Utopian views of unspoiled paradises are apparent from his earliest travels; sic:

“For the time being we are living in a Negro shack, and it is paradise compared to the ithmus [of Panama]. Below us, the sea, fringed with coconut palms; above, fruit trees of every variety, and all 25 minutes from town. Negro men and women mill about all day long with their Creole songs and ceaseless chatter. … Nature is at its lushest, a warm climate but with cool spells.” -Letter to his wife Mette June 20 1887

In addition, he admired savages who were untouched by the false morality and the paralyzing effects of civilization. Did Tahiti live up to his expectations of unspoiled paradise?

Yes and no. Upon arriving in June 1891, he found Tahiti more civilized that he would have liked, with Christian churches and colonial offices. He moved to a more remote province and began good work, only to find himself penniless and begging to repatriated (granted in June 1893).

Back in Paris, Gauguin was as eager to explain the nuances of Tahiti as a zealot, despite the fact he had never managed to learn the language and his knowledge of their religion came from a French travelogue. He turned his studio into a wild, Polynesian style bordello and took up a biracial mistress with a monkey. This, combined with an unusual costume, made quite a stir in Paris. He wanted to return as soon as possible, explaining in an interview with L’Echo de Paris in March 1895:

“I had once been fascinated by this idyllic island and its primitive and simple people. That is why I returned and why I am going back there again. In order to achieve something new, you have to go back to the sources, to childhood. My Eve is almost an animal. That is why she is chaste for all her nakedness. But all the Venuses in the Salon are indecent and disgracefully lewd.”

Unfortunately, this last passage can’t help but bring to mind the string of Tahitian wives, all around the age of puberty, that Gauguin took. While his statements about paradise and savages signify more than a desire for young island girls, certainly knowledge of the artist’s life influences how one understands his Romantic notions of Primitivism.


3 thoughts on “Gauguin’s Romantic Notion of the Noble Savage

  1. I can understand his attraction to the island and having escaped the stifling levels of decorum but I think what I found detestable was his indifference to the impact his syphilis would have on the young women he slept with and the health of any resulting children.

    I do agree about the gorgeous colours of his paintings. His work is just stunning to see in the real.

  2. It’s the way he kept leaving people who depended on him…and all the blustery braggat statements that aren’t necessarily proved correct just because he’s an amazing painter.

    It’s funny- the better I know a person, the less I like him. It happened with Byron, with Oscar Wilde, certainly with Gauguin. The tone in so many of his letters just irks me.

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