A recent BBC programme, The Private life of a Christmas Masterpiece considered Gauguin’s Te Tamari No Atua (God's Child), a re-imagining of the familiar nativity scene, the Madonna lying exhausted on a bed, blunt- featured, dark-skinned and stocky, easily recognisable as Gauguin's 14-year-old pregnant mistress.
Maugham said: 'There was such an informal and merry atmosphere about the Tiare Hotel, that we could easily overlook some of the primitive features of bedchamber and plumbing, to say nothing of huge flying cockroaches, the pariah dogs and cats who fornicated all night long on the metal roof or in the free space under the dwelling.'
The prime attraction of this hotel was its proprietress, the fat rollicking Louvaina Chapman, of Tahitian, French and Scandinavian blood, who had befriended Gauguin on numerous occasions. Her mouldy ledger still contained, stuffed between its ink-smudged pages, many of his unpaid bar-chits.
'No mattah! No mattah!' Louvaina told Maugham ... 'If he no hab monnee, dat hokay. I like talk wit' him, 'cause he hab many new t'ings tell me. Vahines (girls) let him paint dem noho (naked), an' dey tell me he vairee goo' lover. Too bad he hab badluck here in Tahiti ...'
As Maugham remarked: '... When I arrived in Tahiti in 1917, Gauguin had been dead for less than fourteen years, so there were many people still living in Tahiti and the Marquesas who remembered him very well. My research was able to progress remarkably, indeed, thanks largely to Louvaina.
Dear loveable fat lady! She was so huge, draped loosely in a pink Mother Hubbard dress. She was always singing or laughing, her triple chins forever shaking jelly-like. So kind and generous, a heart larger than herself. She told me many previously unknown things about Gauguin's life in Tahiti. I felt Louvaina was too outstanding and colourful not to include her in my novel on Gauguin. She became Tiare Johnson in my The Moon and Sixpence, and her lively rundown boarding-house Hotel de la Fleur. Louvaina died just few months after I left Tahiti, in the calamitous 1918 influenza scourge. I mourned her passing.'
Louvaina had introduced Maugham to the chieftainess in a village on the south coast of Tahiti, from whom he learned of a Gauguin painting on the glass panes of a native's hut in the district of Mataiea ...
'I found the wooden frame dwelling, hidden in thick foliage on the southern coast of the island. When I saw the painting, strangely executed on the upper glass panes of a door, I was spellbound. An original Gauguin! How it had escaped not being carried away by a collector, I could not understand. However, it was a good thing I came along when I did and bought it. There had been other doors in the front of the hut painted by Gauguin, but the children of the Anani family had scraped them mostly away with their fingernails. Had I left the remaining painting where it was, it would have been shortly destroyed, also. I gave the native man two hundred francs and he was very happy with the transaction.'
Gauguin had given it to the farmer in 1892 after the farmer had looked after him when he was sick from syphilis. The painted glass took pride of place in the writing room at Villa Mauresque, Maugham’s glamorous home for most of his life.
But The Private life of a Christmas Masterpiece also suggested that Gauguin did not understand the title he gave to his most famous painting. Te Tamari no Atua, always translated as God’s Child, is actually a plural. The mistake is attributed to Gauguin’s less than precise Tahitian, but if – as it is – the painting is a radical re-imagination of the Nativity, then it may not just be that haloed child that belongs to God, but the child-mistress-Madonna, the women tending the infant, and – why not - even the cattle in the background and that white cat nestling at the Madonna’s feet, and with that plural the suggestion that God does not discriminate, purchase or value us at differing rates.