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A ghost painting

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Painting “The Spirit Of The Dead Keep Watch”

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Ghost Story On Canvas

French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin worked in Tahiti from 1891 to 1893 and then returned to Paris with a trove of canvases. Among them was The Spirit of the Dead Watching, or The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch, which was inspired by an uncanny event Gauguin said he experienced with his 14-year-old Tahitian mistress. According to the artist, he came home late one night to find the girl nearly out of her mind with fright at what she believed to be the presence of a ghost in their house. Afterward, Gauguin decided to paint the scene more or less as his lover had described it, with the greenish spirit of an old woman sitting woodenly nearby as the girl lay on the bed, petrified with fright.

Gauguin reported that he chose his colors specifically to recreate the girl’s feeling of dread: Purple on the wall for its unsettling effect, the glowing yellow of the bedclothes and the eyes of the ghost for its eeriness, and of course the ghastly, unnatural complexion of the uninvited spirit.

But another reason for Gauguin’s application of this otherwordly radiance was that Tahiti’s nighttime forests often emitted spots of natural luminosity that the natives associated with the spirits of the dead. This bit of Tahitian folklore, similar to the European belief in, and fear of, the will o’ the wisp, figured strongly in the local culture. However, it is now thought that the Tahitian ghost lights may have been produced not by ghosts, but by bioluminescent mushrooms.

In contemporary times, The Spirit Of The Dead Watching had been the subject of controversy—and not because of anything having to do with ghosts. Critics have vilified the then-middle-aged Gauguin for his alleged sexual exploitation of the very young teenager. Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews has gone as far as to suggest that it was Gauguin the girl was afraid of that night, rather than any disembodied spirit.

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