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Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The native peoples of the Pacific Ocean)
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Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (The native peoples of the Pacific Ocean)
Work Type
scenic wallpapers
woodblock printing, stencilling and hand-brushed gouache on paper
Approximate: 1680mm (width), 2000mm (height), Approximate: 2325mm (width), 2000mm (height), Approximate: 1020mm (width), 2000mm (height), Approximate: 900mm (width), 2000mm (height), Approximate: 2620mm (width), 2000mm (height)

From the moment James Cook arrived back in England following his first voyage to the Pacific in 1771, a flurry of illustrated publications spread news and information about his travels. Over the next few decades interest in the Pacific continued unabated and was supported by the circulation of objects, books, prints and paintings as well as plays in England and Europe. The panoramic French wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, 1804-5, represents a summation of the intense interest in the Pacific aroused by Cook's voyages.

Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique is a rare, spectacular, large-scale panoramic wallpaper, printed in colour from woodblocks with colour finishing by hand. It was printed by the entrepreneur and innovative wallpaper manufacturer, Joseph Dufour after a design by textile and wallpaper designer, Jean-Gabriel Charvet. A panoramic wallpaper consists of a series of drops that can either be hung individually or joined together to form a panoramic scene in a domestic environment. The wallpaper was popular and was sold throughout Europe and in North America where it adorned the interiors of wealthy individuals. It could be arranged in a number of ways to suit its architectural setting. The complete sequence of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique consists of twenty drops, each of which were numbered and described in an accompanying brochure written by Dufour. Te Papa's set consists of 18 drops, the only near-complete set in New Zealand.

The wallpaper offered a kind of 'armchair tourism', intended to transport viewers to another time and place. The scenes depicted were inspired by the many publications and images made following British and French voyages to the Pacific. Te Papa's example depicts 23 different indigenous groups from throughout the Pacific, from Alaska, to New Zealand. New Zealanders are represented in the third by a solitary male figure, wearing a korowai, and with a heru or comb in his hair, and a woman with child and four warriors in the fourth section. Great liberties have been taken with costume and adornment culminating in a rather fanciful view of the peoples represented. All are set in the lush environment of Tahiti, described by Louis Antoine de Bougainville following the French visit in 1768, as 'the Garden of Edenæeverywhere we found hospitality, ease, innocent joy, and every appearance of happiness'. This reinforced the Enlightenment myth of the noble savage and the notion of the Pacific as paradise. Consequently, there is generalising of features, and reduced attention paid to traditional practices of body adornment such as piercing or tattoos. In spite of this sanitisation, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique does include a moment of rupture to this narrative: the death of Captain Cook, reduced in scale and rendered a background detail in one panel (the second section from the left).

Since the 1980s there has been renewed interest in Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique in Australasia and the Pacific. While it can be seen as a window onto the past, reflecting the beliefs and preoccupations of the time, it also offers a means to reflect upon the profound shifts that have occurred over the past few decades in terms of the European perspectives of previously colonised cultures. It has become a focus of attention for indigenous peoples revisiting the stereotypes and representations of their forebears and has brought the historical wallpaper well into the minds of contemporary audiences.

Rebecca Rice,

February 2019

Collection: Art
Purchased 2015 with Charles Disney Art Trust funds
Accession Number
Image and original data provided by Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa
Use of this image is in accordance with the Artstor Terms & Conditions
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