When looking at one of Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti it is easy to see why people think he was responsible for creating the myth of a paradise on earth. Not true! The idea had existed for over a century before Gauguin set foot on the island. The first European to land there was (by common consent) an English sea captain called Samuel Wallis in 1767. The following year the French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine de Bourgainville arrived. He was so struck by the idyllic location inhabited by contented, good-natured people, uncorrupted (as he saw it) by civilisation, that he described it as the New Cythera (in Ancient Greece the island of Kythira was associated with Aphrodite, Goddess of Love). His description of Tahiti in these terms, first published in Voyage autour du monde in 1771, began the legend that Gauguin was to engage with so powerfully, exactly 120 years later. And Gauguin wasn’t the first artist to go to Tahiti. Take a look at this painting by William Hodges, the official artist on Captain James Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific from 1772-5.
Note the naked women on the lower right, perhaps underscoring the island’s reputation for sensual pleasures, and the carved idol denoting pagan worship, both important themes in Gauguin’s work. But if Hodges’s painting represents ‘Paradise found’, does Gauguin’s represent ‘Paradise lost’?