(b. 1848, Paris, d. 1903, Atuona, Hiva Oa, French Polynesia)

The White Horse

Oil on canvas, 141 x 92 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

This canvas, typical of Gauguin's late style, is one of the most successful paintings done on Tahiti. The animal stands at the front in water amidst mysterious vegetation. In the centre and background are two almost hidden horsemen emerging from the branches of the trees.

The horse was a comparatively rare animal in Polynesia, having been introduced from the West in the sixteenth century, but Gauguin has placed these three animals in this tropical eden as if they belonged there quite naturally. The white horse in the foreground lends the work its name, but this title was given to the work by Daniel de Monfreid long after Gauguin's death. It is riderless, but the two animals in the background are mounted. It is difficult to know exactly what Gauguin intended by the work, given the absence of his usual inscribed title, but the lush vegetation, rich colours and naked figures suggest an earthly paradise in which man and nature co-exist quite happily.

In the Polynesian imagination the white horse is a sacred animal. Gauguin was able to express this artistically by borrowing the stance of the horse from the frieze on the Parthenon in Athens, of which he possessed old photographs.

After he had moved to Hivaoa in 1901, Gauguin returned to the theme of horse and rider, in two works that are clearly influenced by the Parisian racing scenes of Degas.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.