AGNSW The Greats (National Scottish Collections) – Gauguin

December 25, 2015











Paul Gauguin, Three Tahitians 1889, oil on canvas

  • unfortunate gallery lighting causing interference along the top edge;
  • the prominent black scar on the male’s back (“marked man”), highlighted with yellow ochre;
  • black outline of the figures (Renaissance);
  • one-colour treatment of each of the figures’ clothing (Renaissance);
  • contrast between Vice and Virtue: surrounding negative space;
  • curious anatomy in the face of Virtue, especially the eyes (compared to Vice’s);
  • the uncomfortably cramped flowers of Virtue (echoed though in the hair of Vice);
  • the contour of each of the women’s shoulders continues through the form of the male, providing a very strong sense of unity between the three;
  • the curious light on the male’s buttock below his belt;
  • the echoing of the knotting in each of the figures’ clothing;
  • all the colours of the palette – blue, mauve, red, orange, yellow, green – suggesting universality and completeness;
  • the awkward use of the hand holding the green mango – I can’t find a precedent in Western art for this pose beyond Raphael’s Three Graces;
  • echoing touches of pink under both the women’s ears;
  • lack of complicity – none of the figures is looking directly at each other;
  • close cropping in the Japanese style;
  • heavy, smearing application of paint;
  • both women are taller than the male;
  • problematic anatomy of Virtue: the position of the breasts suggesting she’s turning, though that turn is not reinforced elsewhere; both breasts appear to have been deliberately lowered, perhaps to disguise one behind the forearm to denote modesty;
  • curious use of the tricolore in the clothing of the figures – conscious/unconscious cultural fusing?
  • Virtue as mahu and a commentary on the impact of colonialism through a Western gender binary system, not just as the male turning from the mahu to female, but the Western iconography of Adam/Eve and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge?

Some digital reproductions of the painting on the internet crop the expansive dark green landscape at far left and below the man’s loincloth. Digital reproductions of Vice’s red dress vary the colour from orange to warm red, cool red crimson, Indian Red and dark pink.

Regarding the troubling anatomy of Virtue, see the discussion of mahu at



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