The Siesta, 1892 - 1894

Details     Description
Artist Gauguin, Eugène Henri Paul

Printed Three women in missionary dress (even the white-blue pareu worn by the foremost figure is made of fabric manufactured in England for the South Seas market) lounge on a porch, that extends into a sun-drenched lawn. A fourth, more industrious, figure presses a pile of white and red fabrics with a Flatiron at the far end of the porch. Beyond them, in a shadow cast by the porch roof or the house to which it is attached, one woman squats on her haunches,  engaged in some endeavour out of our sight, while near her a sixth form, extremely difficult to decipher, could be a woman sprawled comfortably on her side, initiating, perhaps, the picture’s title, which does not appear in the early literature. It is a genre scene of domestic ease and desultory activity with little or no suggestion of the brooding sensuality that so often pervades Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian women; and it is almost completely lacking in the implied narrative so often employed in his multifigure compositions. Everything here is untroubled. As evidenced by a contemporary photograph taken by Gauguin’s friend Charles Spitz, Gauguin was depicting a daily occurrence, perhaps indeed at siesta time, given the long shadows and raking light, when Tahitian women gathered in communal ease, disposing themselves with an unaffected grace, which was one of the first things that attracted Gauguin upon his arrival in Papeete in 1891.

Despite its immediacy— John Rewald likens the picture to a snapshot - it is one of Gauguin’s most carefully considered and formally developed works and one that draws on numerous visual sources for its spontaneous effect. The grand foreground figure, resting on her hand, recalls in her simply rounded form and contained outline the frescoes of Giotto and the Italian primitives, postcards of which Gauguin carried with him to Tahiti. Even her huge foot, with its earth-green highlights, rests firmly on the pink and lavender planks in an exact outline. The woman just beyond is shown in equally precise profile: it is only with the two other women on the porch that Gauguin’s firm compositional control eased somewhat, although the occurrence in another picture of the figure in a pink blouse seated on the edge of the porch suggests the care with which he has noted and adjusted her pose here. The landscape parallels the careful blocking out of the total pictorial space: panels of highlight and shadow in peach, sharp yellow green, orange yellow, and deep green lift away from the spatial perspective of the porch, continuing the interplay of two and three dimensions. The emphatic perspective of the boards of the porch—a rare device in the Tahitian pictures, in which spatial illusion most often depends on colour relationships and overlapping forms—prompted Michel Hoog to speculate that for this, picture Gauguin turned to specific Japanese prints, particularly a coloured engraving of a temple with a sharp prospective  Degas, who often used diagonal linear perspective with great subtlety, seems a more likely source.

The cerebral calculation used in creating this picture may argue for a date of 1894, the year after Gauguin, feeling the hopelessness of his financial situation in Tahiti, and perhaps sensing that he had overdone his retreat from Western culture, returned to France. His reimmersion into European art, past and present, as well as a certain emotional distance from his Tahitian subject matter, could partially explain the unique position this picture holds within his oeuvre. However, in other documented works from this Parisian interval, when he did continue, both in painting and in prints, to deal with Tahitian subjects, there is a calculated exploitation of his themes—a formal manipulation of them into more decorative and abstract images—that is absent here. In The Siesta, for all the control exercised, the final effect is in complete harmony with an immediate sense of place. Therefore, a date just prior to his departure seems more likely. The notion that the picture may have been executed early on his return to the South Seas in 1895 is essentially dispelled by Richard Brettell’s observation that this size canvas—a standard size 50 sent from Paris—was frequently used by him in the first stay, but does not recur thereafter.

There is also the possibility that the work, particularly given its great importance within his oeuvre, was carried with him on his return. This speculation is partially supported by the physical evolution of the picture as we know it, since there are numerous evidences of a rethinking of the composition and of the specific elements within it, as well as radical colour changes, which are established by close examination of the surface. Still vaguely visible just to the right of the first porch post, under the small bush and the pink-and-yellow patch of lawn, is the outline of a seated figure, possibly another version of the figure of the woman seated at the edge of the porch. Even in its present location the figure has been adjusted Gauguin also rethought the lower right section of the painting, where the loosely woven basket now appears. At one point this object was the image of a small dog, whose outline is still suggested by the blue lines that deflect away from the perspective lines of the porch; its nose can be discerned at the side of the basket and its body extends to the right.

Changes in colour during the physical history of the picture are equally complex. The deep blue of the sarong of the central figure was originally a rich red, not unlike that in the sarong, also with white flowers, of the girl in On the Beach (1891, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) or the neatly identical red cloth worn by the woman in the provocative Otahi (private collection). The first colour is clearly evident through the drying crackle of the blue. The white cloth on which the woman in red now lies may have been enlarged when the dog was painted out. The pink of the porch can be seen through areas of the cloth, especially near its edges. Finally, it has been pointed out that the flat top of the straw hat worn by the central figure bears repaints. These repaints, assuredly by Gauguin, judging from the technique, cover flake losses in a layer that had completely dried before the second application of paint.

As striking as these changes may be, they are hardly unique for Gauguin, who in nearly all of his more ambitious canvases went through a period of compositional readjustment with shifts in colour balance to achieve his final effect. There is almost certainly no evidence of “unfinish” at any point in the surface where it has been suggested—perhaps because of the strongly silhouetted forms and the flattened fields of colour—that some final degree of modification is absent. It is a painting on which the artist seems to have worked for a considerable time, yet its actual date remains unclear, without any further documentation concerning its early history. It clearly is a work that absorbed Gauguin completely, and his efforts were fully justified by the grandness of his final achievement.


1892 - 1894

Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 88.9 x 116.2 cm