The late 19th century and early 20th century was a time of exploration of the South Pacific by some of the best-known artists and authors of the time. Their famous works still stir the soul.
Chief among the artists was Paul Gauguin, the French painter who left behind the life of a stock broker in modern society in search of the primitive beauty of the South Pacific. He was influenced by van Gogh and Dégas, and worked for awhile with Cézanne, and Pissarro. He left these leading impressionists of the time to develop his post-impressionist style amid the tranquil setting of French Polynesia. Gauguin was in Tahiti from 1891 to 1893. He returned in 1895 and lived in the Marquesas Islands until his death in 1903. He is buried on Hiva ’Oa.
Robert Louis Stevenson is perhaps best known for his imaginative novel, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but it may have been his fascination with sea adventure in his books Kidnapped and Treasure Island that led the Scottish author, poet, composer, and musician to the South Pacific.
In 1888 he left San Francisco with his wife aboard a ship, seeking a better climate for his poor health. They traveled across the eastern and central Pacific, spending time in the Hawaiian Islands, the Marquesas and Tuamotus, Tahiti, New Zealand, the Gilbert Islands, and Samoa. He recorded his travels in a series of letters, later published in a book called In the South Seas.
They settled in Vailima, Samoa, where Stevenson was loved by the local people. They called him “teller of tales” or “Tusitala” in Samoan. Here he wrote The Bottle Imp, The Beach of Falesá, as well as ballads about local legends, and began his novel Weir of Hermiston. Upon his death in 1894 the Samoans carried his body up to Mount Vaea and buried him overlooking the broad Pacific Ocean. His famous epigraph is engraved on his tomb:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
The verse was translated into Samoan and is still sung as a song of grief.
Well-known humorist and satirist Mark Twain also traveled through the South Pacific during this time. In 1895 he undertook a tour of the British Empire and wrote about it in his book Following the Equator, a fascinating view of the world of the day.
Twain traveled by steamer from Vancouver to New Zealand, stopping in Hawaii and “plowing through a mighty Milky Way of islands” from Hawaii to Fiji. He didn’t stop in Samoa, but recounts “… if you wish to go there, you will have no trouble about finding it if you follow the directions given by Robert Louis Stevenson to Dr. Conan Doyle and to Mr. J. M. Barrie. ‘You go to America, cross the continent to San Francisco, and then it’s the second turning to the left.’”
Others authors who traveled these waters and were influenced by its beauty included Herman Melville whose first big success, Typee, published five years before his better-known Moby Dick, was taken from his experience aboard an American whaler and his own experiences ashore in the Marquesas Islands.
Joseph Conrad commanded a ship in the British merchant marine during this time. He traveled around the world, including passages through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific before retiring from the sea in 1894. Conrad may be best known for his novel Heart of Darkness that was later adapted for film as Apocalypse Now. The Master Mariner’s writing was strongly influenced by his sea-going career. He wrote a number of sea stories, including Lord Jim, Typhoon, Falk and The Shadow Line.
Playwright, novelist and short story writer Somerset Maugham traveled to the Pacific in 1916. His research resulted in two well-known books. The first was an adaptation of the life story of Gauguin in The Moon and Sixpence, published in 1919. He makes the character English and changes his name, but provides a memorable fictional account of the troubled artist. A collection of short stories, The Trembling of a Leaf, published in 1921, all take place in Tahiti, Hawaii, or Samoa.
Anyone sailing to the South Pacific can visit these places, like we did. For those sailors, and for those who only dream of it, all of these works will help to put you into the mind of these great artists and authors.
Featured image: I Raro te Oviri, by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
Dallas Museum of Art (This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired in the United States)