This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Gauguin began carving wood objects soon after he arrived in Tahiti in June 1891. Lieutenant Jénot, who greeted Gauguin on behalf of local officials when he disembarked in Papeete, later recalled that the artist "brought with him a whole assortment of gouges and chisels for carving wood. He asked me if the natives I knew could procure him some wood" In the fall of following year he wrote to Daniel de Monfreid that "I have recently made two wood carvings, which I managed to sell for 300 francs." He thereafter reported that "Just now I'm carving some barbaric trinkets from tree trunks." In March 1893, nearing the end of his sojourn in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote "In my two years' stay...I have turned out sixty-six canvases of varying quality and some ultra-barbaric sculpture. It is enough for a lone man" (quoted in A. Pingeot, "Sculpture of the First Voyage," Gauguin Tahiti, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, pp. 70-71).
Gauguin may have carved this powerful head of a young Tahitian woman during his first stay on the island, circa 1892, as suggested by Ronald Pickvance in the 1998 Fondation Pierre Gianadda exhibition catalogue (op. cit.), in which this sculpture was first published. Although its features are more stylized and the relief flatter, this head bears comparison to Mask of a Tahitian Woman, 1892 (Gray, no. 98; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The latter work has been long presumed--although Gray was doubtful--to be a portrait of Gauguin's companion Tehura (Tehemana), of whom he wrote in Noa-Noa, "On her charming face I did not recognize the features which, until now, I had seen all over the island and her head of hair was pretty extraordinary: thick as a bush and slightly kinky. I later learned she was from Tonga" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit.). Pickvance has observed in regard to the present Tête, "the reference to the hair l'égèrement crépue suggests such an identification. At the back of the head, Gauguin has added a tress of hair in willow, just as he added 'ready-made' elements-a pearl, or teeth-to other Tahitian sculptures" (ibid.).
In his description of Tehura, Gauguin did not refer to facial tattooing or scarification, which would have been a very prominent feature of his vahine's appearance if it were as visible as it appears on the forehead and cheeks of this Tête. Indeed, no other extent Gauguin carved head displays such extensive native markings. Gauguin has adorned this girl with a diadem, with inscribed lines that radiate outwards, giving the effect of an aura or halo. Her expression is inwardly serene and Buddha-like. Rather than a specific portrait, this head is more likely that of a universal type, or a divinity, such as the moon goddess Hina seen on other sculptures of this period (cf. Gray, nos. 95 and 97).
The elaborate signature that Gauguin carved into the reverse of this beautiful head suggests that he thought highly of it, and that it held some special, even fetish-like, significance for him. He derived his initials PGO, which he first used to sign his pottery in 1886-1887, from French sailors' slang for the male organ, to thumb his nose at people of conventional tastes and mores. A lurking feline creature, intertwined with serpentine vines, also evokes the artist's deeply sensual and freedom-loving nature.