Artist: Paul Gauguin (French, Paris 1848–1903 Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands)
Date: ca. 1899
Medium: Charcoal on laid paper
Dimensions: Sheet: 16 1/8 x 12 1/4 in. (41 x 31.1 cm)
Credit Line: Purchase, The Annenberg Foundation Gift, 1996
Accession Number: 1996.418
Gauguin's almost worshipful appreciation of exotic peoples, whom he believed to be innocent of modern civilization's woes, is stirringly conveyed in this New World icon. At its center is the face of a dark-haired young woman whom Gauguin painted on his second voyage to Tahiti. Two renderings of profiles (right and left) are conjoined with a full frontal view in a haunting totemic design that evinces fascination and awe. These masklike faces, devoid of any sign of emotion in their blank eyes and closed lips, appear timeless and remote, much as do the stone heads sculpted by ancient Asians and Egyptians.
Arguably the finest of all Gauguin's surviving drawings, this charcoal study is a work of exceptional feeling and finesse. By smudging the sooty contour lines and shadows with his fingers (or perhaps with a wad of soft bread), the artist defined features of the Maori race in a way that conveys both enthnographic accuracy and spirituality. For Gauguin, a young and beautiful Tahitian woman was a powerful symbol of life's mysterious forces.