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Art of the Pacific Islands

The Saint Louis Art Museum began to acquire Pacific, or Oceanic, art during the 1910s. In 1915, St. Louis businessman William K. Bixby offered the Museum a Samoan fan that was reportedly made for famed writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Gifts of Samoan and rare Hawaiian barkcloth followed during the 1940s. Through purchases and generous gifts and bequests from General L. J. Sverdrup in 1952 and from St. Louis businessman Morton D. May during 1975 through 1996, the collection has grown to nearly 700 objects. The collection's historical masks, sculpture, ceremonial shields, textiles, personal adornments, and paintings from Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Australia provide insights into the rich artistic expressions and cultural diversity of Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Australians.

Approximately two-thirds of the collection is comprised of gifts and bequests from Mr. May, whose contributions include a figurehead from a Maori fishing canoe, a Fijian breastplate, a Hermit Islands ceremonial paddle, and a New Guinea human-bird figure.

Works from New Guinea are a particular strength of the collection, such as a Gerua board from the Eastern Highlands, a male Telum figure from Astrolabe Bay, and a Mendi kina shell from the Western Highlands. Notable Island Melanesian objects include a malagan image of a wreathed hornbill and drum from New Ireland, a ritual shield from Bougainville, and two Massim lime spatula finials. Important Polynesian works include a Maori canoe sternpost and a figure from the Hawaiian Islands with a particularly early provenance.

Oceanic art greatly influenced European artists. For example, Paul Gauguin and Emil Nolde visited the Pacific in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and created paintings in the Museum's collection that demonstrate the influence of Oceanic art, cultures, and landscapes on their work.