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Spirit of the Dead Watching

Painting, 1892, 73×92 cm

Description of the artwork «Spirit of the Dead Watching»

Paul Gauguin considered this canvas as one of his best works of the first Tahitian period. According to the artist, over the two years spent in Tahiti, he painted 66 “more or less good paintings”, but he felt a special affection to the “Spirit of the Dead Watching”.

Gauguin wrote about this work to his friend, collector George-Daniel de Monfreid, his wife Mette, he mentioned it in his diary, which he wrote for his daughter Aline, and in his book "Noa Noa". At the 1893 exhibition in Copenhagen, which was organized for his return to Europe, the artist assigned the highest price for this painting - more than one and a half thousand francs. Later, Gauguin painted a self-portrait against the background of this painting.

The girl depicted here is Teha’amana, the Tahitian “wife” of Gauguin (the artist referred to her as Tehura in his letters), whom he met when she was only 13 years old. Talking about working on this canvas, the artist recalled how he once returned home much later than usual and found the girl paralyzed with fear. Being, like all the natives, very superstitious, Tehura was afraid of ghosts hiding in the dark. So when she left alone in the house without light, she could only lie motionless in her bed, bursting into tears and awaiting the appearance of spirits with horror.

Behind Tehura, Gauguin depicted a ghost — the figure of a woman in a black dress with her face hidden behind a mask. The flowers depicted above the lying girl, according to the artist, are wandering lights, one of the forms taken by the spirits.
Some researchers believe that Gauguin deliberately invented a mystical legend for the “Spirit of the Dead Watching” painting, following his own call to “Be mysterious”. In fact, everything could be much more prosaic. The girl’s eyes wide open from fear could be a reaction to his sexual aggression (the artist’s wife Mette has repeatedly said that Gauguin beat her). Be that as it may, the artist managed to portray a young female body without erotic overtones, having managed to express absolutely pure emotion.

Author: Yevheniia Sidelnikova
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Nude

Style of art: Impressionism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1892

Size: 73×92 cm

Artwork in selections: 52 selections