Great Paintings: Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana) by Paul Gauguin

As a human being, Paul Gauguin is somewhat infamous in the art world. The nineteenth century French painter has been connected to many racist and misogynist acts, and his work has been tied to ideas of colonialism by modern scholars. However, his artistic skill is beyond compare, and I really do enjoy his painting, so today I’m going to be talking about one of his masterpieces: Merahi metua no Tehamana.

The title, which roughly translates to Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana, refers to Gauguin’s Tahitian lover Tehamana (their relationship is quite problematic because she was a young teenager at the time, but we’ll set that aside for now and just talk about the painting). The painting depicts Tehamana in a European style of dress as she stands in front of a painted fresco that seemingly portrays Tehamana’s ancestors.

Gauguin was interested in all varieties of spiritual and religious experience, and this painting betrays his interest in the role of ancestors in the Tahitian spiritual life. Though Gauguin didn’t really understand Tahitian religion or culture, he interpreted it through a European lens as something deeply mystical and romantic. This strange fresco is Gauguin’s attempt to explore this spiritual experience. Tehamana’s face also conveys this spiritual energy. As the Art Institute of Chicago explains, “Tehamana’s glance suggest not only the strong, enigmatic bond between these two figures but also the connections between the present and the past, the corporeal and the spiritual, and the living and the dead.”

There are other layers of symbolism present in this painting. The mangos in the bottom left corner probably symbolize fertility, perhaps a reference to the strength and fecundity of Tehamana’s bloodline. The fan that she holds is a symbol of beauty. While the painting is primarily a portrait of Tehamana, the painting also explores deeper spiritual and esoteric themes. Merahi metua no Tehamana is a fine example of Gauguin’s originality and depth of imagination.

Originally published at on June 17, 2020.



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