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The Sacred Mountain (Parahi Te Marae)

1892
Paul Gauguin, French, 1848 - 1903

This painting of a marae, or Tahitian sacred enclosure, was created on Paul Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. The artist’s title—Parahi Te Marae (There Dwells the Temple)—suggests that it represents an actual or at least a representative Polynesian religious site, but the setting is instead a fanciful creation of Gauguin. By the time of his visit, most marae were in ruins, and he constructed this scene from diverse sources and objects. An idol similar to the monolithic statues, or mo‘ais, of Easter Island, more than two thousand miles east of Tahiti, stands alone on a volcanic hill, while the fence enclosing the sacred space is decorated with skulls and fretwork patterns inspired by diminutive tooth and shell ear ornaments worn on the Marquesas Islands, nearly nine hundred miles west. The unabashed appropriation of these objects for his own purposes is indicative of Gauguin’s fascination with mystery and mythmaking.

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Object Details
Sale, Gauguin, Hôtel de Ventes, Paris, February 18, 1895, no. 26, bought in by Gauguin [1]. Sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, June 16, 1908, no. 28; purchased by Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), Paris, until at least 1936 [2]; sold to Étienne Bignou and owned jointly by Bignou Gallery, Paris and New York, and Alex Reid & Lefèvre Galleries, London, by January 1939 to 1940 [3]; with Étienne Bignou, Paris; sold by Bignou Gallery, New York, to Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, Devon, PA, January 27, 1940; gift to PMA, 1980.1. Of the 47 paintings in the sale, all but 9 failed to sell and were bought in by Gauguin. J. de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin (Paris, 1925, p. 155) and the Wildenstein catalogue raisonné (Paris, 1964, no. 483) state that the painting was purchased by Gauguin's friend Émile Schuffenecker; however, the procès-verbal of the sale records that the painting was bought back by Gauguin (see Gauguin: Exposition du Centenaire, Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, 1949, catalogue by Jean Leymarie, app. II, p. 97); Gauguin used various friends as figurehead buyers at the sale. Moreover, Leymarie (app. III) reprints a letter written by Gauguin shortly after the auction to an unknown recipient, offering several paintings including "The Sacred Mountain" at the catalogue prices. 2. Vollard exhibited the painting in 1910-11 at the Grafton Galleries, London and in 1936 at an exhibition organized by the Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paris. 3. Exhibited New York, Bignou Gallery, "Gauguin, First Trip to Tahiti," January 3-14, 1939, no. 2, and London, Lefevre Galleries, "Milestones of French Painting," June 1939, no. 14. According to letters from Alex Reid & Lefèvre and Lefevre Fine Art dated 10 May 1965 and 26 Feb. 2004 (curatorial file), the painting was purchased by Bignou directly from Vollard, was then owned jointly with Reid & Lefevre, and sold by Bignou.

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