Although Gauguin found Tahiti to be disappointingly westernised, he did his best to promote the myth of his carefree existence in a tropical Eden. Its status as an annexed territory of France – complete with colonial bureaucracy and a regular postal service – did at least enable him to manage his career far from his European clientele, and he kept close track on how his work was playing on the Paris art market.
His second period in Tahiti, from 1895 to 1901, was plagued by financial uncertainty and ill health deriving from an ankle injury and the onset of syphilis. Even so, the age-old myth of the ‘Earthly Paradise’ persisted in his imagination and informed his art. His observations of daily life gave way to more complex, multi-figured compositions that, he argued, could express the open air yet intimate life of ‘fabulous Tahiti… these women whispering in an immense palace decorated by nature itself’.
In 1901 he moved on to Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas, one of the most remote island groups in the world. Determined to provoke his neighbours, particularly the Catholic bishop, he carved the words ‘Maison du Jouir’, or ‘House of Pleasure’ into the elaborate lintels he made for the entrance to his home. Some of his late works suggest themes of mortality and departure: the hooded horseman in The Ford (The Flight) 1901 has been seen as Death while a ship in the background prepares to head off. Yet Gauguin remained cantankerous, and was in the midst of a bitter argument with the colonial authorities over his refusal to pay tax when, weakened by syphilis, he died of heart failure in May 1903.