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Paul Gauguin, Nevermore, 1897. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 116 cm, P.1932.SC.163

The dinner held in honour of Gauguin before his departure for Tahiti in 1891 included the recitation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven (1845), in which the bird of the title, visiting a poet on a cold winter evening, repeatedly croaks “Nevermore”. Although Gauguin denied that the “bird of the devil” in the background of his painting bore any resemblance to Poe’s ominous creation, the inscription in the upper left is a clear reference to the poem and a reminder of Gauguin’s erudition and wide ranging interests.

Gauguin wrote to his friend and dealer Daniel de Monfreid that with Nevermore, he intended to use a ‘simple nude’ to suggest ‘a certain savage luxuriousness of a bygone age’. Gauguin viewed the painted surface itself as ‘luxurious’. His model was Pahura, his ‘vahiné’ (Tahitian wife). The setting however is not one of lust but of unease. Are the two figures behind the headboard innocent bystanders, lecherous visitors or malevolent spirits? Their status is left deliberately unclear.

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