Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau)

Gauguin, Paul

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Oct-09-1997
  • Last revised: Nov-23-1997


A Tahitian female lies naked on her belly, terrified by the presence of the spirit of death. Behind her, with an averted phosphorescent eye, the spirit is personified in the form of a harmless old woman dressed in a black shawl. According to island mythology, the title has two meanings: either the young girl is thinking of the ghost, or the ghost is thinking of her. Bold ambiguous shapes and colors (yellow blanket, blue pareu, phosporescent greenish sparks on a violet background) intensify the eerie atmosphere and enigmatic quality of the painting.


Gauguin describes the incident that prompted the painting in his diary. Returning home unexpectedly late one night he struck a match and saw his wife, Tehura, "immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear . . . Might she not with her frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?" (Noa Noa, Louvre manuscript, pp. 109-110). Native Polynesians believe(d) that the phosphorescences of the light are the spirits of the dead.

Gauguin liked to preserve the enigma of realities and interpretations. In his letters and in Noa Noa he writes of two constructions: an abstract, or "musical part" in which colors and composition simply present the pictorial study of a Polynesian nude; and a "literary part" which links the earth-bound soul to ghosts, the diabolic, and the death spirits. He admits to writing the genesis of this work ". . . for those who must always knows the whys and the wherefores." Is this painting to be read as a variation of the "Oceanic" or sexually-charged nude image (Gauguin copied Manet's Olympia recumbent nude with--perhaps as a decorative accessory--a black woman servant in attendance), or as a symbolic image of fear as in other of his lithographs and woodcuts on this Manao tupapau theme?

This painting, framed, appears again, in the background of Gauguin's "Self-portrait with Hat" suggesting its significance to him. The Manao tupapau is seen in reverse, indicating that the artist is looking at himself in a mirror.

It might be interesting to contrast the handling of unearthly silence, and tension between inner and outer realities in this painting with the way it is handled in Munch's painting, The Dead Mother (see this database) and/or personified in Dickinson's poem, Because I could not stop for death (see this database).


Dated 1892. Symbolist art is characterized by timelessness, the abstract, and ambiguity.

Primary Source

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y.