Images of Pacific peoples in 18th century books, prints and wallpaper

There are currently two exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery that I would love to see, but will probably not make it to Auckland to see them. In conjunction with them, this Saturday, there is also a half-day seminar called Vision and Re-vision: Imagining the Pacific Then and Now.

The two exhibitions are, firstly, one by contemporary New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana called: Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus [infected] which “presents a powerful, multiscreen panoramic video that breaks new ground technically and ideologically as it reconsiders and subverts Joseph Dufour & Cie’s widely distributed 1804-5 wallpaper, Les Sauvages de la mer Pacifique (The Native Peoples of the Pacific Ocean). The second exhibition, Printing the Pacific: 1696-1804, addresses the role 18th-century printmaking played in the making, manufacture and dissemination of new visual information about the Pacific and includes a reproduction of a segment of Dufour’s wallpaper.”

The images I studied for my Master of Arts were directly relevant to this seminar topic and these exhibitions – I included discussion of the wallpaper in my thesis, having seen a complete copy at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. One of the main focuses for my MA was the French eighteenth century artist and author Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur. He produced a number of very popular books of ‘peoples of the world’ in their ‘typical’ costumes from about 1784 to 1806. Having discussed the sources for his images of Pacific peoples [see also my Exotic Depictions article], I then mentioned the ‘tableaux’ of peoples that he also compiled. There was one for the four continents and another one for the ‘Discoveries of Cook and La Perouse’, which is reproduced here on the AAG website.  So here are some notes towards a paper I might have prepared for the seminar had I been able to get there! [Please note, I do not own these images – please do not reuse.]

The late appearance of La Pérouse’s voyage account in 1797 (nearly ten years after the ships left France) is likely to have been the catalyst for Saint-Sauveur’s Tableau des découvertes du Capne Cook & de la Pérouse (Tableau of the discoveries of Captain Cook and La Pérouse), 1798/99 (engraved by Antoine Phélippeaux, 1767–c.1830). This was one of a set of five prints – the other four depicting peoples of each continent – each one accompanied by an explanatory booklet: Tableaux des principaux peuples de l’Europe, de l’Asie, de l’Afrique, de l’Amérique. The Oceanic Tableau consists of peoples from various countries arranged in three horizontal bands, but as if occupying a continuous space. This was a departure from Saint-Sauveur’s earlier books, which included single figures or at most a small group of figures representing the various countries separately. He may have got the idea of a tableau from an English book (New Discoveries Concerning the World and its Inhabitants, London 1778, 2 vols). This contains only one image per volume, but the image at the front of volume one is a folded engraving of a tableau of peoples, Persons and Dresses of the Inhabitants of the South Sea Islands.

Saint Sauveur 1

This presents about a dozen different island peoples and animals as if located in one place – a tropical island with European ships in the harbour. As this was published before Cook’s third voyage, the figures are sourced from his first and second voyage images.

The Oceanic people in Saint-Sauveur’s Tableau are sourced from his own earlier books; for example, his New Zealand couple (seen here in the middle of this image).

Saint Sauveur 2

His depiction of some of the peoples encountered on La Pérouse’s voyage, for example Manila, Macao, De Langle Bay (on the island of Sakhalin) and De Castries Bay (on the Asian mainland, adjacent to Sakhalin) are sourced from La Pérouse’s published account.

The popularity of Oceania is also shown by Joseph Dufour (1752–1827) and company’s production of a panoramic wallpaper in about 1805: Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, designed by Jean-Gabriel Charvet (1750–1829).

Saint Sauveur 3 Saint Sauveur 4 Saint Sauveur 5

This was produced in 20 strips (approximately 10.2 metres width, in total) that could be displayed in different combinations. The prospectus issued with the wallpaper gave some suggested combinations, for example, using five, six or ten strips – thus making it a versatile product for differently sized rooms. This was one of the earliest known panoramic wallpapers – a French speciality, which remained fashionable decorative items for about 60 years. The main distinguishing feature of panoramic or scenic wallpapers is that, unlike other wallpaper, they do not have repeated patterns. They form a continuous scene, or narrative, enveloping a room with the spectator at the centre – each strip or scene is part of a larger whole. Peopled landscapes were the most popular compositions until the 1840s, with the usual subjects being taken from classical mythology or of exotic locations.[1]

Two other panoramic wallpapers produced around the same time by the rival firm of Jean Zuber were Les Vues de Suisse (1804) and L’Hindoustan (1807).[2] The scene began about one metre from the ground so that it was roughly at eye level, and would not be blocked by furniture, and sky occupied a large part of the top so the paper could be cut to fit the height of the room without destroying the scene.

Despite, or perhaps because of, wars in Europe at the time, most panoramic wallpapers presented harmonious worlds – conflict, hard work, or erotic scenes were mostly avoided. From the comfort of their sitting or dining room the middle-class man or woman could temporarily forget about the problems outside the door, while admiring the idyllic exotic scene. As it was on display in their home, it also needed to say something about their taste to friends and visitors. At the beginning of the prospectus, Dufour stated that:

“This decoration has been designed with the object of showing to the public the peoples encountered by the most recent explorers, and of using new comparisons to reveal the natural bonds of taste and enjoyment that exist between all men, whether they live in a state of civilisation or are at the outset of the use of their natural intelligence.” [3]

He then suggested how particular groups would find it of interest, for example, how it might appeal to women, including that a mother might use it to give effortless lessons to her eager, inquisitive and intelligent daughter. He clearly anticipated that women would have a role in choosing it as a decoration, and it was designed to appeal to both sexes. In addition to brief summaries of each country in the prospectus, he suggests that to fully appreciate it one should read the explorers accounts, and helpfully makes volume and page references to the multi-volume summary of voyages by Jean-Francois de la Harpe (Abrégé de l’histoire générale des voyages, Paris, 1780–86). So, the wallpaper can be seen as an illustrated encyclopaedia or costume book on a large scale.

The landscape setting is supposedly Tahiti, but various peoples encountered mostly by Cook are depicted. Cook’s death in Hawaii is shown in the background of strip eight, as is the volcanic island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). Dufour anticipated some criticism for juxtaposing different places and events, but appealed to the artistic licence taken in the ‘interest of the success of the design’. Taking elements out of their natural context and ‘recontextualising’ them contributes to the exoticism of the work.

Panoramic wallpapers were expensive to produce and therefore manufacturers chose scenes that could be expected to be popular. The wallpaper depicted peoples encountered on English voyages – mainly Cook’s three voyages – rather than additional ones from La Pérouse or d’Entrecasteaux’s voyages, which could support the idea that Dufour may have had an American market in mind when he commissioned the wallpaper design. [4] The Pelew (Palau) islanders in strip 20 are sourced from the account of Captain Wilson, shipwrecked on the island in 1783; Saint-Sauveur’s books and his Tableau had also included Pelew islanders. Panoramic wallpaper designs were usually sourced from existing prints rather than being original, as this might give some guarantee of popularity.

Charvet appears to have used Saint-Sauveur’s books or his Tableau as one of his main sources for the wallpaper, which is an indicator of the popularity of these works. For example, the New Zealanders (in strips 10 and 11) are represented by a seated warrior with his back to the viewer; a woman and child, and a war party of four men walking through the forest in single file.

Saint Sauveur 6

The design for the New Zealand woman combines elements from Saint-Sauveur’s Girl of New Zealand – the clothing, armbands and necklace in particular; although the feather headdress and direction of her gaze is more like that of Saint-Sauveur’s Woman of New Zealand.[5] The child’s pose is similar to that of the child with the Easter Island Woman, which was probably sourced from an American Indian woman, but it is a pose that also appears in an image of A divorce ceremony practised by the Canadians.[6]

Some other figures in the wallpaper are also adapted from Saint-Sauveur, for example, the man and woman of Tanna in strip 7 have similar costumes and accessories – including the woman’s panpipes and the man’s club – as Saint-Sauveur’s man and woman of Tanna; and the pose and clothing of the king of Tahiti are also similar to Saint-Sauveur’s king. The wallpaper’s Marquesan islanders in strip 18 have different poses, but the same clothing and accessories as Saint-Sauveur’s Marquesan man and woman. Despite the prospectus saying that the Marquesan men are heavily tattooed and wear large plates of wood in their ears, neither Saint-Sauveur’s nor the wallpaper’s Marquesan men have either of these decorations. In relation to the inhabitants of New Caledonia, the prospectus says they wear large items of jewellery in their ears and noses, but “we have permitted ourselves to suppress the absurd parts of a picture which is only intended to offer pleasant objects to the eyes of the public”.[7]

One of the prominent elements in the wallpaper is three Tahitian women dancing (in strip 5) in a landscape setting, with musicians and spectators surrounding them.

Saint Sauveur 7

The prospectus explains that the dancer on the right of the group is “Poyadua, daughter of Oreo, chief of the district” and she is dressed in a taama “a sort of corset which is used out of prudence or necessity as a breast guard”.[8] Some dancers in engravings after Cook’s artist on the third voyage, John Webber, wear this type of ‘breast-guard’. Saint-Sauveur’s books included a Tahitian ‘danseuse’ (female dancer), although only the 1788 edition showed her with the ‘breast-guards’. But the three Tahitian dancers depicted in the wallpaper are not directly from this source. It is likely a number of sources were used – the composition of three dancers, musicians on the left and audience on the right is similar to Cipriani’s dance scene …

G B Cipriani (del) & F Bartolozzi (sc) View of the inside of a house in the Island of Ulietea, with the representation of a dance… from Hawkesworth’s Voyages

and John Rickman’s anonymously published journal, Journal of Captain Cook’s last voyage to the Pacific Ocean, 1781, included a group of dancing women in Representation of the Heiva at Otaheite. However, the costumes in the wallpaper are a more fanciful depiction than either of these and, although one includes a vestige of the tapa cloth around the waist that was in the Webber illustration, they may have more closely resembled costumes from French ballet or theatre.

The Cipriani scene includes three women dancing, and it was reported on Cook’s third voyage that Otoo’s three sisters performed a dance for Cook and others. But three may also allude to the three Graces of Greek mythology – Banks, Bougainville and Commerson all compared Tahiti to ancient Greece – Commerson praising the beauty of the women and calling them “the sisters of the Graces … the lightest veil floats away with the wind and the desires.”[9]

Clearly, for Saint-Sauveur, neither physiognomy nor ethnographic accuracy was important – the people are, on the whole, just display mannequins for clothing and adornments. So what was important? He emphasised that his books were both to inform and entertain. The images and text do not always agree – perhaps the texts were more for ‘information’ and the images more for ‘entertainment’? He used examples of costumes that were unusual to a European audience, such as the Tahitian girl carrying a present, the Sandwich Island [Hawaii] dancer and the Tahitian king. But at other times he chose from a source with nothing particularly unusual such as the Tahitian girl and man, except perhaps to emphasise the comparison of Tahiti with classical Greece and Rome. He added adornments where he may have felt they were lacking in the original source and where a European reader might expect to see them, such as feather headdresses. He combined elements from various sources, as well as occasionally using Native American Indians as sources for Oceanic people; and he omitted ‘oddities’ – particularly for women, for example the perforated ears of Hodges’s Easter Island woman would have appeared unfeminine to a European at that time and he probably did not want to show ‘ugly’ images. Finally, their colouring completed the exotic image, but one that was nevertheless pleasing to the eye.

There is not much difference in the presentation of Oceanic peoples compared with other indigenous peoples – if they are shown as slightly less aggressive than some others that is probably because the art from Cook’s voyages showed little of the violence, or cannibalism, that was described in the texts.[10] But compared to Europe and some parts of Asia there is a clear distinction – Saint-Sauveur’s Europeans are clothed and they are also placed in a context (in front of buildings, for example), but he includes very little background for many of the non-Europeans, including his Oceanic peoples.[11] Of course, none of these are meant to be portraits, but to show ‘typical’ costume; however, few of his Oceanic peoples could be said to be “truthful”. Saint-Sauveur’s lack of much background tends to create a certain uniformity – all “savages” share similarities – and, combined with his tendency to use similar poses for different peoples and combine elements from various sources, has the effect of equalising the images. They are not seen as independent or individual peoples as they have no natural environment or context – which contributes to their exoticism. By seeing Oceanic peoples as add-ons to America it was easy to fit them into existing prejudices about indigenous peoples (“savages”) and into existing pictorial conventions for depicting “savages”.


For more information on this Lisa Reihana work see this website: . An exhibition catalogue is also now available. The essay in it by Vivienne Webb covers similar ground to me, and as she was the keynote speaker at the Auckland Art Gallery seminar, it is most unlikely I would have presented a paper, even if I could have got there!

[1] Odile Nouvel-Kammerer, ‘Wide horizons: French scenic papers’ in The papered wall: the history, patterns, and techniques of wallpaper, (ed) Lesley Hoskins, London: Thames and Hudson, 2nd ed. 2005, p. 103

[2] The designs for L’Hindoustan were sourced from T & W Daniell’s Oriental scenery and William Hodges’s Select views in India (Nouvel-Kammerer, 2005, p. 100).

[3] Prospectus translation in AGNSW/NGA, 2000, p. 32. All quotes from the prospectus are from this source. Art Gallery New South Wales and National Gallery of Australia, Les sauvages de la mer pacifique: manufactured by Joseph Dufour et cie 180405 after a design by Jean-Gabriel Charvet, Sydney & Canberra: AGNSW & NGA, 2000.

[4] AGNSW/NGA, 2000, p. 16.

[5] Roger Collins mentions this, and also notes the pose of the NZ warrior is probably based on Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, but in a reversed position (‘An inside story: Dufour & Charvet’s wallpaper of the South Seas’ Bulletin of New Zealand Art History, 9, 1985, p. 10.) Rudiger Joppien, p. 202, mentions Grasset de Saint-Sauveur’s influence, in particular on the woman of New Caledonia, (in ‘The artistic bequest of captain Cook’s voyages: popular imagery in European costume books of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’, in Robin Fisher & Hugh Johnston (eds), Captain Cook and his times, Vancouver & London: Douglas & McIntyre/ Croom Helm, 1979, pp. 187–210.)

[6] In Bernard Picart The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world, London 1733–39 (vol. 3) [translated from French]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Victoria University library, accessed 1 July 2009. This image is also reproduced in other English books later in the century. The French edition was popular and no doubt known by Saint-Sauveur.

[7] AGNSW/ NGA, p. 38

[8] Dances by Oreo’s daughter Poyadua were witnessed by Cook and others on the second voyage, on 26 and 29 May 1774. The same woman was depicted as Poedua by John Webber on the third voyage.

[9] Commerson, in Mercure de France: «les sœurs des Graces sans voile…la plus légère des gazes flotte toujours au gré du vent et des désirs».

[10] Rudiger Joppien and Bernard Smith, Art of Captain Cook’s voyages, vol. 2, p. 74, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1985–7 [Vol 1 – The voyage of the Endeavour; Vol 2 – The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, Vol 3 Catalogue – The voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780; Vol 3 – Text – The voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780.]

[11] They may have stylised ‘tropical’ vegetation, such as a palm tree, and a hut.


One thought on “Images of Pacific peoples in 18th century books, prints and wallpaper

  1. I enjoyed this post for its historiographic detail in teasing out iconographic sources for the famous Dufour wallpaper. It provides a meticulously researched bass-note counterpoint to the otherwise excellent essays provided in the Auckland Art Gallery’s newly published book on Lisa Reihana’s ground-breaking artwork. In the Auckland Art Gallery publication, essays by Deidre Brown, Sean Mallon, Nicholas Thomas and others enrich our comprehension of Lisa’s profoundly post-colonial re-appropriation. But to properly understand the Eurocentric background – the ideological wallpaper, in fact – we also need to comprehend the imaginations of early nineteenth-century European viewers.


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