Words of the Devil (Parau na te Varua ino)

Gauguin, Paul

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Aug-04-2000


A naked young Tahitian woman standing in a lagoon tries to cover her genitals with a kerchief as she becomes uncomfortably aware of the presence of an ominous-looking clothed spirit figure kneeling behind her. The lush exotic landscape punctuated with phosphorescent foliage, fauna, looming tree, serpentine forms, and the outline of a barely discernible thin hand representing the artist adds to an atmosphere of mystery and malevolence. Below the artist's signature and date in black on the canvas is inscribed in orange the title, "Parau na te Varua ino."


Gauguin's trademark style of applying a wide selection of unconventional colors to produce lush scenes of life in exotic Tahiti is on display in this painting. The bright reds and pinks indicating the lagoon contrast with the deep blues and blacks that depict the depth and texture of the tropical forest. This paradise and woman strongly suggest Eve in the Garden of Eden and the associated themes of innocence, evil, judgment, sin, and human vulnerability. Contrast Dürer's humanist conception of Eve's body and more traditional Western representation in the engraving, The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve).

The trance-like posture of the kneeling figure in "Words of the Devil" is reminiscent of the black-hooded spirit of the underworld in Gauguin's Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau). The resemblance of the models, use of phosporescence, questions of shame, modesty, anxiety, and especially whether this entire scenario is meant to exist in imagination or actuality are also applicable to both paintings.Indeed, according to this painting, what are the words of the devil? Munch's Puberty makes yet another especially provocative juxtaposition. All of the paintings cited here invite discussion of the stories they evoke. All are annotated in this database, with links to their on-line images.


This painting was done in 1892.

Primary Source

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.