Gauguin could be cleared of syphilis—by the skin of his teeth
DNA tests and mineral analysis performed on human teeth found buried in Tahiti
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 27 February 2014
Four human teeth found buried outside Paul Gauguin’s hut in the Marquesas Islands are almost certainly those of the artist, according to tests arranged by the Field Museum in Chicago. But the discovery throws into question an almost universally held belief among art historians—that the French painter suffered from syphilis.
The four teeth, identified as those of a European male, were discovered inside a brown glass bottle during an archeological dig in 2000. They were buried nearly three metres below ground in a well behind the site of Gauguin’s Maori-style hut, which he called “La maison du jouir” (House of Pleasure). The artist lived in the village of Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa from 1901 until his death two years later from a suspected heart attack. His hut was demolished shortly afterwards.
Researchers compared DNA extracted from the teeth with that of Gauguin’s grandson Marcel Tai Gauguin, a retired builder who is descended from the artist’s Tahitian mistress Pauura a Tai. The tests showed a 90%-99% probability that the teeth belonged to Gauguin. Taking into account the spot in which they were found, it is virtually certain that they are those of the artist.
However, the teeth contained no traces of mercury, which was used to treat syphilis in the late 19th century. “The fact that no traces of mercury were detected suggests that either Gauguin did not have the disease, or that he was not treated for it,” says Caroline Boyle-Turner, an American art historian who is coordinating the research into the teeth and writing a book on the artist’s time in the Marquesas.
In addition to the teeth, researchers discovered an eclectic collection of objects inside the well, including a New Zealand beer bottle, a Bovril jar from England, various liquor bottles, Breton pottery fragments, French perfume containers and a syringe along with two morphine ampoules. Art historians concluded that the objects were regarded as valueless and likely dumped into the well after Gauguin’s death because wells were not used by the Marquesan community. Over decades, the well filled up with earth.
The mayor of Atuona, Etienne Tehaamoana, granted researchers permission to examine the teeth, which were riddled with cavities. They were initially studied by William Mueller, an American forensic dentistry expert, who determined that Gauguin must have suffered badly from toothache before they were extracted. The teeth were then sent to a University of Chicago laboratory, where they were examined by scientists linked to the Field Museum.
Artistic materials found in the well included a brush made from the fibrous end of a pandanus fruit (either used as a paintbrush or toothbrush), a broken coconut shell containing pigments, and three chunks of orange and ochre paint (still smelling of linseed oil). The paint, which was tested at the Louvre, was found to be European paint, not home-ground paint as initially thought.
On 9 January, researchers returned the teeth to the mayor of Atuona at a ceremony on board the cruise ship Paul Gauguin, off the coast of Atuona. Along with other objects from the well, they are now on display in the Centre Paul Gauguin, on the site of La maison de jouir.
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