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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Paul Gauguin: Nevermore 1897

London, Courtauld Institute Gallery

On 28 June 1895 Paul Gauguin boarded a train at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. A few days later he was on board ship, beginning his second voyage to Tahiti. He would not see France again. At the age of forty-nine he was already in very poor health suffering from the alcoholism and syphilis which would kill him within eight years. But, even though he was reportedly in tears when the time came to leave Paris, he was apparently leaving to ‘be able to end my days free and at peace with no thought for tomorrow and without having to battle endlessly against idiots’.

Unfortunately, on arrival in Tahiti, his health robbed him of the chance to find this sought after peace of mind. Nevertheless, during this second stay in Tahiti, despite his growing depression, which culminated in a failed attempt at suicide, Gauguin produced some of his most evocative paintings. Nevermore is one such picture.

A naked Tahitian girl lies full length on a bed; her head framed by a lemon-yellow pillow. She is Pahura, Gauguin’s young vahiné or mistress. The walls are richly decorated and among the motifs employed by the artist we can identify two fairly explicit phallic references in the vegetative forms beneath the bird and above the girl’s shoulder.

The somewhat comical bird in the window is supposed to be a raven but has turned out to look more like a guillemot. Gauguin admitted in a letter to his agent in Paris that the bird was badly painted ‘… but no matter, I think it’s a good canvas.’ Even though Gauguin denied it, the title of the picture, painted by the artist at the top left of the canvas, cannot escape inevitable association with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven in which the eponymous bird perches above the door uttering ‘Nevermore’. Gauguin saw it more as a symbol of the devil. It matters not, its presence contributes to the general feeling of unease which pervades the picture.

This disquiet is amplified by the wistful, or perhaps fearful look on Pahura’s face. She seems to be aware of the raven and perhaps she is also listening to the two other figures conversing in the background. Her melancholy demeanour may have something to do with the loss of a baby daughter which had been born a year or so before this picture was painted but who had died soon after birth. Pahura and the baby appear in an earlier painting, The Child of God which shows the young mother, just after the birth, with a tupapau (a spirit of the dead) about to take the baby away.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary Works

1897 Camille PissarroBoulevard Montmartre; Afternoon Sunshine, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

1898 Gustav Klimt: Pallas Athena, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Self Portrait with Two Circles


Portrait of Hermine Gallia

Gustave Klimt

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes