Pierre Loti

The Marriage of Loti

By: Pr. Richard Berrong

When Viaud published his second novel, The Marriage of Loti, in 1880, a year after Aziyadé, the situation vis-à-vis visual images was almost the exact opposite. Whereas Viaud's potential readers had had very definite images of the Near East in general, and odalisques in particular, thanks to French art of the preceding decades, they had virtually no visual images of Tahiti or Tahitians, the subject of Viaud's second work. As a result, Viaud's text had much more of a chance of forming their images, along the lines of what Flaubert had hoped to be able to do with Salammbô.

There is perhaps some irony, then, in the fact that it was Viaud's second novel that convinced Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to make his two trips to Tahiti, in 1891-93 and then again from 1895 to his death in 1903. The irony lies in the fact that Gauguin, though inspired in part by Viaud, painted Tahitians in a manner that made them look very different from what Viaud's readers much have imagined from his novel, thereby significantly changing how subsequent readers would visualize his characters.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Viaud's Tahitians and Gauguin's is the color of their skin. Gauguin's Tahitians often look very close to black, and certainly not in any way "white."

"Market Day" is perhaps an extreme example of this, as a few other Tahitian paintings illustrate.

Still, it is obvious that these women are all very dark-skinned.

Viaud's Tahitians, and in particular the women, have a much less uniformly dark coloration. At first Rarahu is described as having a "tawny color, verging on brick red" (I:5), which is not unlike some of Gauguin's paintings of Tahitian women.

Note Gauguin's repeated presentation of Tahitian women in pairs, apparently of friends. Viaud also repeatedly depicts Rarahu with her friend Téourahi.

A few times, Viaud describes the Tahitians as being copper-colored (I:6, I:14, II:14). Twice he describes them as being amber-colored (I:6, I:13), which is lighter still.

Several times, however, he goes so far as to suggest that they might "pass" for white. At one point, in describing Rarahu, Loti remarks that "without the slight tattooing on her forehead ..., you would have said that she was a young white woman" (II:14). Earlier, when talking about Tétouara, a Kanaque who had been brought to Tahiti years before, the text had asserted that "she looked like a person from the Congo [a black, in other words] who had been lost among a group of English misses" (I:10), suggesting that the Tahitian women around her could somehow pass for young Englishwomen.

The next striking difference between Viaud's Tahitians and Gauguin's is their shape. As we have already seen, Gauguin's Tahitian women, in particular, are all rather heavy set, one might even say squat.

Viaud repeatedly, and from the very beginning of his novel, explains that Tahitian women are "outside all the conventional rules of beauty" (I:2), "their kind of beauty is outside all the rules" (II:1), etc. Still, as with his remarks on their skin color, he seems to undercut his initial assertions about their form subsequently, making them appear, once again, more "European," or at least more acceptable to his French readers. The text describes Rarahu's arms as having "the perfection of Antiquity" (I:5), she has an "antique grace" (II:23), and her chest is compared to "beautiful statues of antique Greece" (II:35).

Somewhat along these same lines, the novel describes Rarahu's eyes as having "a caressing, childlike sweetness, like those of young cats" (I:5). This, too, and the fact that Rarahu is repeatedly presented with a pet cat, suggests a feline grace that is clearly not at all what Gauguin was trying to suggest with his rather squat, heavy-set Tahitian women.

The two artists' depictions of the Tahitians are not totally dissimilar, however. Both present these people as very preoccupied with a native religion that is full of menacing spirits.

The figure on the left in Gauguin's painting looks like it could be any one of several evil spirits that Viaud's text catalogues as occupying a central role in Tahitian life (I:18).

In this, one of Gauguin's most famous canvases, note the figure of a god, enlarged below.

The two artists also share their depictions of Tahitians as children. Viaud repeatedly refers to the Tahitians in this way throughout his novel. Stephen F. Eisenman has remarked that "Gauguin's depiction of young native women ... seems to arise from some of the same personal and cultural impulses as in his paintings of children" (Nineteenth Century Art [London: Thames and Hudson, 1994] 330).

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  • [Click on images to enlarge]
  • Market Day - 1892
    Market Day - 1892
  • We Hail Thee Mary - 1891
    We Hail Thee Mary - 1891
  • Contes barbares - 1902
    Contes barbares - 1902
  • Tahitian Women - 1891
    Tahitian Women - 1891
  • Joyousness - 1892
    Joyousness - 1892
  • Nave, Nave Moe - 1894
    Nave, Nave Moe - 1894
  • Spirit of the Dead Watching - 1892
    Spirit of the Dead Watching - 1892
  • Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? - 1897
    Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? - 1897
  • Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? - 1897

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