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Spirit of the Dead Watching - Understanding Gauguin's Painting


Spirit of the Dead Watching

Paul Gauguin
Oil on canvas
73 x 92.4 cm
Albright Knox Art Gallery

This work was inspired by Gauguin's own experience when he reportedly came home one night and saw his mistress in Tahiti, Teha'amana, lying motionless on her bed with a terrified expression. After painting the main part of the young girl, the artist thought he should find a reason for her frightening emotion, so he added the old woman in black who represents the soul behind her, but in his notes, Gauguin thought that the object that frightened her should be himself.

Critic Matthews argues that it is too superficial to attribute Teha'amana's fear to a belief in spirits or fear of darkness and that it is likely that the girl reacted with such fear at the sight of Gauguin because of the emotional damage he suffered from his wife Mette, which he then transferred to his mistress in the form of violence.



This work was scheduled to be exhibited in the 1893 Copenhagen exhibition, along with seven other works, but for various reasons, it ended up in an art dealer's exhibition. In addition, this work also draws to some extent on Manet's Olympia, a work that Gauguin was very fond of. In the Durand-Ruel exhibition, the painting was also described as a "Tahitian Olympia" or even a "brown Olympia".

Gauguin created a series of works on the theme of "frightened Eves" from 1889 onwards, and this work is a continuation of his depiction of Eve frightened by a snake in Breton Eve. Because of his interest in the subject, Gauguin also represented similar scenes in pastels, lithographs, and woodcuts.


Other works selected by Gauguin for the Copenhagen exhibition with this painting:

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