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Gallery Text

Gauguin’s model for this painting was likely Pau’ura a Tai, a 14-year-old girl whom the artist described as his “native wife” while living in Tahiti in the 1890s. Widelycriticized today, the painter’s sexual relationships with local adolescents were also condemned by some of his contem poraries in French Polynesia. The painting maybe a response to the 1896 death in infancy of Gauguin’s daughter with Pau’ura a Tai. The figure’s wings, posture, and drapery evoke representations of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. But instead of cradling a baby in her left arm, she protectively clutches her abdomen, emphasizing her loss. Reinforcing this narrative of birth and death is the presence at lower left of Ta’aroa, the Tahitian creator of the universe. Pau’ura a Tai averts her gaze from the deity, who Gauguin anthropomorphizes in an unusually childlike form. The girl’s downcast stare, coupled with her exposed chest, underscores the powerimbalance between artist and sitter.

Below the Surface

An X-radiograph of this painting reveals a different image beneath the surface. It confirms that Gauguin first painted a horizontal landscape with riders on galloping horses before turning the canvas and repainting it with the composition of Poèmes Barbares. The pigments that the artist used for the underlying landscape are denser than those used on the surface layer. As a result, they block X-rays more effectively, leaving a brighter imprint on the radiograph. Gauguin was frequently short on supplies in Tahiti, so it’s possible he sacrificed one painting to create another. The landscape imagery of the underpainting relates to several pastoral scenes that Gauguin executed during this period—perhaps he felt comfortable abandoning one of his more common compositions to produce a work that marked the birth and death of his child.

[x-radiograph image]

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Paul Gauguin, French (Paris 1848 - 1903 Fatu-Iwa [Marquesas Islands])
Poèmes Barbares
Other Titles
Alternate Title: Savage Poems
Work Type
Persistent Link
Level 1, Room 1220, European Art, 19th–20th century, Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Oil on canvas
64.8 x 48.3 cm (25 1/2 x 19 in.)
framed: 97.8 x 81.9 x 5.8 cm (38 1/2 x 32 1/4 x 2 5/16 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: u.l.: P Gauguin 96
  • inscription: upper left, inscribed, French: Poemes Barbares
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in white chalk: 33E7[?]
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in red ink: 4[encircled]
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in graphite: Wertheim
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in graphite two times: 10133F
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in graphite: #125A[underlined]
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), handwritten in red chalk: 188
  • stamp: verso (stretcher), black ink: DE Hauke & CO., Inc. / 3 East 51st Street, New York
  • inscription: verso (stretcher), stencilled letters and numbers in bright red (repeated on frame): L.40.22.1
  • inscription: verso (frame), handwritten in blue crayon: RNN 3496
  • label: verso (frame), red-bordered label: 1626[underlined] / 1
  • label: verso (frame), decorative blue-bordered label: 2250[underlined] / [2 lines of numbers rubbed off] / 86
On consignment with George-Daniel de Monfried, Paris, April 1897. Unidentified owner, Paris, sold; [through Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 16, 1906, no 30]; to [Galerie Eugene Druet, Paris]. Dr. Alfred Wolff, Munich, (c. 1908 to 1912). Sir Michael Sadler, England, (1912 until at least 1926). [De Hauke & Co., New York], sold; to A. Conger Goodyear, New York, (1929-1937) sold; [through Wildenstein & Co., New York]; to Maurice Wertheim, New York (1937-1951) bequest; to Fogg Art Museum, 1951.

Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Exposition Internationale, exh. cat. (Cologne, Germany, 1912), no. 167

F. Burger, Cézanne und Hodler (Munich, Germany, 1913), vol. I, p. 82; vol. II, pl. 31

Paul Gauguin, Lettres à Daniel de Monfreid (Paris, France, 1919), see letter dated Feb 14 1897

Charles Morice, Paul Gauguin, Henri Floury (Paris, France, 1919), repr. in b/w facing p. 106

Important Pictures by 19th Century French Masters, exh. cat., Leicester Galleries (London, England, 1924), no. 59

Starr Figura, First Loan Exhibition: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York, NY, 1929), no. 47

Arsène Alexandre and Bernheim-Jeune, Paul Gauguin, sa vie et le sens de son oeuvre (Paris, France, 1930), p. 182, repr. p. 167

Arsène Alexandre, The World's Masters (New York, NY, 1930), repr. pl. xxiv

Reginald H. Wilenski, French Painting, Hale, Cushman & Flint, Inc. (Boston, MA, 1931), p. 289

Cézanne-Gauguin, exh. cat., Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, OH, 1936), no. 6

Paul Gauguin, Intimates Journales (New York, NY, 1936), repr. p. 29

Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903, exh. cat., Harbor Press (New York, NY, 1936), no. 33

Retrospective Loan Exhibition of Works by Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., Wildenstein Galleries (New York, NY, 1936), no. 34

C. J. Bulliet, The Significant Moderns and their Pictures (New York, NY, 1936), repr. pl. 79

Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, OH, 1936), no. 280

Pola Gauguin, My Father Paul Gauguin (New York, NY, 1937), ill. opp. p. 217

John Rewald, Gauguin, French and European Publications (New York and Paris, 1938), repr. p. 117

The Complete Graphic Work and a Selection of Paintings by Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY, 1938)

Edward Alden Jewell, French Impressionists and Their Contemporaries in American Collections, Hyperion Press (New York, NY, 1944), repr. p. 162

Alfred M. Frankfurter, "Today's Collectors: Modern Milestones", Art News (June 1946), vol. XLV, no. 4, p. 64

A loan exhibition of Paul Gauguin, for the benefit of the New York Infirmary, exh. cat., Wildenstein Galleries (New York, NY, 1946), no. 31

French Painting since 1870, lent by Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1946), pp. 38-41, repr. p. 39

Six Masters of Post-Impressionism, exh. cat., Wildenstein & Company (New York, NY, 1948), no. 16

La Peinture Française Depuis 1870: Collection Maurice Wertheim, exh. cat., Tom Taylor (Québec, Canada, 1949), no. 16, pp. 45-47

Lee van Dovski, Paul Gauguin oder die Flucht vor der zivi-lojation, Olten (Bern, Switzerland, 1950), no. 328

Bernard Dorival, "Sources of the Art of Gauguin from Java, Egypt, and Ancient Greece", The Burlington Magazine (April 1951), vol. XCIII, p. 118

Howard Devree, "By French Masters: The Metropolitan Shows Wertheim Collection", The New York Times (New York, NY, July 6 1952), p. 6, p. 6

Marshall B. Davidson, Gauguin, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY, 1953), repr. in color

Almanac Stuttgart, Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Stuttgart, Germany, 1955), repr.

Charles Gorham, Und das Gold ihrer Körper ; das abenteuerliche Leben Paul Gauguins., Holle Verlage Gmblt (Baden-Baden, Germany, 1955), ill.

René Huyghe, Gauguin, Crown Publishers Inc. (New York, NY, 1959), repr. p. 82

John Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art, Henry Holt and Co. (New York, NY, 1959), p. 386, repr. p. 384

The Maurice Wertheim Catalogue: Modern French Art-- Monet to Picasso, exh. cat., North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh, NC, 1960), p. 14, repr. p. 15

René Huyghe, Gauguin, Antonio Vallardi (Milan, Italy, 1962), pp. 145-146

The Maurice Wertheim Collection: Manet to Picasso, exh. cat., The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX, 1962), p. 18, pl. 4

Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Beaux-Arts (Paris, France, 1964), no. 547

René Huyghe, Sens et destin de l'art, Flammarion (Paris, France, 1966), repr.

Sidney Finkelstein, Der Junge Picasso, VEB Verlag der Kunst (Dresden, Germany, 1970), repr. as no. 63

Wayne V. Anderson, Gauguin's Paradise Lost, Viking Press (New York, NY, 1971), repr.

Nathan Knobler, The Visual Dialogue: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Art, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY, 1971), repr. fig. 12

G. M. Sugana, L'Opera Completa di Gauguin (Milan, Italy, 1972), no. 373

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, exh. cat., Maine State Museum (Augusta, ME, 1972), no. 10

Jean-Luc Duval, Le Journal de l'Art Moderne, Skira (Geneva, Switzerland, 1973), p. 146

Mary Lynn Zink, "Gauguin's 'Poemes Barbares' and the Tahitian Chant of Creation", Art Journal (Fall 1978), vol. 38, pp. 18-21

Frances Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA, 1980)

Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Gauguin's Religious Themes, Garland Publishers, Inc. (New York, NY and London, England, 1985), repr. in b/w as no. 192

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), no. 223, p. 195, repr. in b/w

John O'Brian, Degas to Matisse: the Maurice Wertheim Collection, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. and Fogg Art Museum (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA, 1988), no. 20, pp. 95-97, repr. in color

René Huyghe, Gauguin, Crown Publishers Inc. (New York, NY, 1988), repr. in color p. 73

Edgar Peters Bowron, European Paintings Before 1900 in the Fogg Art Museum: A Summary Catalogue including Paintings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 95, color plate; pp. 108, 257, repr. b/w cat. no. 390

The Maurice Wertheim Collection and Selected Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings and Drawings in the Fogg Art Museum, exh. cat., Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1990), repr. in color no. 26, p. 83

Karen A. Signell, Frauenträume, Walter-Verlag (Solothurn and Düsseldorf, Germany, 1995), repr. in color on cover

Georg-W. Költzsch, ed., Paul Gauguin: Das verlorene Paradies, DuMont Buchverlag (Köln, Germany, 1998), no. 36, p. 174

Manfred Dierks, Das Dunkle Gesicht, Artemis & Winkler Publishing (Dusseldorf and Zurich, 1999), repr. in color on cover

Suzanne Greub, ed., Gauguin, Polynesia, exh. cat., Hirmer Verlag (Munich, Germany, 2011), repr. p. 219 as fig. 201

Elizabeth M. Rudy, "Researching the Wertheim Collection at the Harvard Art Museums", Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals (Summer 2014), Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 301-6

"Art Conservation: New Ways to Go Beneath the Surface", Auction Central News, Live Auctioneers (, 2020)

"Going Beyond the Surface", Auction Central News, LiveAuctioneers ([e-journal], August 25, 2020),, accessed August 26, 2020

Maggie Galloway, "Uncovering a hidden composition behind Gauguin's 'Poèmes Barbares''', Field Notes, Northwestern University ([e-journal], April 21, 2021),, accessed June 29, 2021

Sophie Lynford and Kate Smith, "Introducing the Art + Science Pathway", Index Magazine, Harvard Art Museums (May 27, 2022),, accessed July 22, 2022

Exhibition History

Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Grafton Galleries, London, 11/05/1910

Exposition Internationale, [Unknown venue, Cologne], Cologne, 01/01/1912 - 12/31/1912

Post-Impressionist Pictures and Drawings, [Unknown venue, Leeds], Leeds, 01/01/1913 - 12/31/1913

Important Pictures by 19th Century French Masters, Leicester Galleries, London, 01/01/1924 - 12/31/1924

First Loan Exhibition: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 11/01/1929 - 11/30/1929

Summer Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 05/01/1932 - 09/01/1932

20th Anniversary Exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 01/01/1936 - 12/31/1936

Retrospective Exhibition of Works by Paul Gauguin, Wildenstein Gallery, New York, New York, 03/20/1936 - 04/18/1936

Paul Gauguin, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 05/01/1936 - 05/21/1936

Cézanne-Gauguin, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, 11/01/1936 - 12/13/1936

The Complete Graphic Work and a Selection of Paintings by Paul Gauguin, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 06/17/1938 - 10/02/1938

A Loan Exhibition of Paul Gauguin, Wildenstein Gallery, New York, New York, 04/03/1946 - 05/04/1946

French Painting since 1870 lent by Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 06/01/1946 - 09/07/1946; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 07/01/1953 - 09/13/1953

Six Masters of Post-Impressionism, Wildenstein Gallery, New York, New York, 04/08/1948 - 05/08/1948

La Peinture Française depuis 1870, Musée de la Province de Quebec, 07/12/1949 - 08/07/1949

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 07/01/1952 - 09/14/1952

French Paintings Since 1870 from the Maurice Wertheim Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 06/01/1953 - 09/30/1953

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 06/15/1957 - 09/15/1957

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 06/10/1958 - 08/31/1958

The Maurice Wertheim Collection: Modern French Art--Monet to Picasso, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 06/17/1960 - 09/04/1960

The Maurice Wertheim Collection: Manet to Picasso, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, 06/13/1962 - 09/02/1962

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 06/20/1963 - 09/01/1963

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, 06/24/1965 - 09/07/1965

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, 09/03/1968 - 09/22/1968

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Montgomery Museum of Art, Montgomery, 06/01/1971 - 09/30/1971

The Maurice Wertheim Collection, Maine State Museum, Augusta, 06/01/1972 - 09/01/1972

Manet to Matisse: The Maurice Wertheim Collection, IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York, 04/09/1985 - 05/25/1985

Masterpieces of European Art, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, 06/22/1985 - 09/15/1985

The Maurice Wertheim Collection and Selected Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings and Drawings in the Fogg Art Museum, Isetan Department Store, Tokyo, 03/01/1990 - 04/10/1990; Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art, 04/14/1990 - 05/13/1990

Paul Gauguin: das Verlorene Paradies, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, 10/31/1998 - 01/10/1999

Re-View: S427 Impressionist & Postimpressionist Art, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/02/2008 - 06/18/2011

32Q: 1220 Wertheim, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

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