Easter Island and Its Mysteries



petroglyph illustration from original Chauvet Religion page


Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet

by Patrick O’Reilly [1]


Originally published in the Journal de la Société des Océanistes in December, 1951 (pp.219-222).*

Translated from the French by Ann M. Altman.

Translator’s Note

The following information about Father O’Reilly is translated from information on the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale:

"Father O’Reilly was a Marist, historian, genealogist and bibliographer. He was one of the greatest French experts on the Pacific as a result of his travels and lengthy visits. He was an active member of the Société des Océanistes[2] for thirty years, a collector, and an erudite scholar with an encyclopedic mind. He authored many works on the South Pacific".

Father O’Reilly refers, incorrectly, to Dr. Stéphen-Chauvet as "Stephen Chauvet". The deceased was born Stéphen-Charles Chauvet and, upon receiving his medical degree, he adopted the double-barreled name that he used professionally, as indicated on the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale:

Stéphen-Chauvet, Stéphen-Charles Chauvet, dit (Dr)

Dr Stéphen-Chauvet. L’Île de Pâques et ses mystères...

Préface du Dr E. Loppé

In the translation that follows, O’Reilly’s version of the deceased name is used throughout, rather than the professional name or the birth name of the deceased.

• • •

STEPHEN CHAUVET (1885 to 1950)

Our colleague, Doctor Stephen Chauvet, born on November 27, 1885 in Béthune (Pas-de-Calais), was of Norman stock and heir to a magnificent scientific and intellectual heritage. His father invented the arc lamp and the Chauvet pulley, and he revolutionized mining. He also built the first auto carburetor. Chauvet’s grandfather drained the marshes of the Somme. Swept up by this current in his early youth, Stephen Chauvet exhibited a startling intelligence of which there are few similar examples. He was a winner in the general academic competition and a Bachelor of Philosophy at 15 years of age, when the naturalist Mangin, director of the Museum[3] , was so struck by his powers of observation that he made him stop studying for the Polytechnique and turn his attention to medicine and the natural sciences.

Studying with Henri Roger, Manouvrier, Sergent, Babinski and Dupré, Chauvet achieved brilliant results as an intern in Paris (1909-1914). The number of prizes that he received during his years in medicine is amazing. He could juggle with laurels from the Faculty and from the Academy of Medicine; he won prizes for his thesis and gold medals from the public hospitals of Paris. The list of his professional publications includes more than 300 works, which include reviews of various medical topics and some more focused summaries, as well as books and original works describing his own medical discoveries. And all this in spite of his appallingly poor health. He left for the front[4] in August 1914 and was wounded on September 4 of the same year, in Saint-Maurice in the Vosges, by a shell that left his left side paralyzed and condemned him to waxing and waning chronic pain for the remainder of his life.

Chauvet was one of those humanist doctors who seem to have the gift of intellectual ubiquity and who endlessly pursue every aspect of their polyvalent curiosity — with a three-page footnote or a large volume in folio — in their exacting studies.

From the day when, after the war of 1914-1918, he obtained from the widow of Commander Bertrand, who had returned from Zinder[5], a small statuette of a Sudanese woman and a double mask, Chauvet was moved by the grace of African art and infected with a collector’s passion. From 1920 to 1935, he was one of the obvious leaders of the movement that directed public opinion towards native arts and, in particular, the arts of the South Seas, which are of such keen interest to us. With the overwhelming good fortune that sometimes rewards those collectors with a special passion and perseverance, he made his name immediately in the jealously closed circle of connoisseurs by a coup that made him a prince among them. He bought the collection of Oceanic art that had belonged to Festetics de Tolna. This wealthy Hungarian nobleman had traveled in the Pacific, on his own private yacht, at the end of the nineteenth century. And he had returned with many "souvenirs". These souvenirs had been impounded after the First World War, since the Hungarian had been an Austrian citizen, on his estate "Eucalyptus" in the South of France. After endless machinations, Chauvet was so happy to return to Paris with such an important collection that he rented space on the Boulevard de Grenelle so that he could store the collection while finding space for it on a floor of his lodgings on the Rue de Grenelle, in the old house that he had turned into a museum and where new pieces arrived constantly, finding there a worthy setting.

With respect to Oceanic art, Chauvet found his most precious treasures in the museums of missionaries; in Oldman’s collection; and at dealers in Anvers, Brussels, and Hamburg. He also made purchases here and there in the French provinces and in Paris, from Father Moris and from Heyman. Moreover, it was Chauvet who bought, from Loti’s estate in 1929, the objects brought back from Easter Island by the author of Rarahu.... In this way, Chauvet amassed a collection that was, without doubt, one of the finest in France.

But Chauvet’s passion was contagious. His interest in indigenous art translated into proselytizing and was a driving force behind numerous exhibitions. It was Chauvet who, early in the winter of 1923-1924, hastily conceived, wrote and edited the guide to the exhibition at the Pavillon de Marsan that was devoted to the indigenous arts of the French colonies. He was already fighting for a "Museum of the Colonies", a French Tervueren [sic; there is a museum devoted to Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium] "for the education of our compatriots" and he dreamed of a museum that would provoke "in many young people, the blossoming of a vocation in the colonies". It is interesting to read this catalog and to see what was considered the art of Oceania at that time.

The success of the exhibition was such that Chauvet undertook to organize, from time to time, similar exhibitions devoted to the arts known as "sauvage". And his underwriters dreamed of an even larger exhibition, which took seven years to arrange. During these seven years, collectors began to discover Oceania as a source of fine arts and the preponderant ethnographic and scientific interest in such materials was supplemented by an appreciation of their artistic merit. As Chauvet wrote, "With two or three others, there was hardly anyone except Mr. Breton, Mr. Éluard, Mr. Moris, Mr. Rupalley, Mr. Tual and the writer who had the perverse taste that allowed them to appreciate such pieces.... All it needed was this exhibition and the two sales at Drouot’s [these must have been the sales by Roland Tual and Rupalley] for these novel tastes to develop among many collectors".

In February 1930, he took part in the organization of the Exhibition of Negro Art that included 400 pieces "of very good quality", some of which were even "a triumph", at the Gallery of the Pigalle Theater. But he complained that these magnificent pieces were being viewed by a good number of country bumpkins[6], and the pieces themselves were, alas, poorly displayed, without adequate explanation, logical presentation, or provenance. He was sorry that no collections from the French provinces were represented and that the exhibition included only a small sample of materials in the Parisian collections: only 52 out of the 147 collections that he had examined were represented. The whole exhibition, magnificent as it was, seemed to him to be a paltry contribution to his effort to make "Paris the center of the movement in favor of indigenous arts".

Three months later, there was an Exhibition of Oceanic Arts from the French Colonies at the Renaissance Gallery. His preparations for this exhibition required many weeks of work and numerous visits to the provinces. At the end of this same year, he participated in the organization of the Exhibition of Negro Art at the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, to introduce more people to the art of the French colonies.

That same year, 1930, Chauvet’s friendship with Marshal Lyautey and Governor General Antonetti was rewarded by the request to put on, in the Colonial Exhibition at the "Palais de Synthèse", an Exhibition of Native Arts from all the French Colonies. The preparation of the rooms for the exhibition took him nine months. But the results repaid his efforts. It was also Chauvet who, at the request of the Government of French Equatorial Africa, organized an Exhibition of Negro Art for this colony.

Moreover, since he did not distinguish, in his enthusiasm, between music and the plastic arts, he was the one who organized the entertainment for the gala, on October 17, 1931, that was given by the International Institute for the Study of African Languages and Cultures and during which the guests listened to actual African melodies and songs. The 2,000 people at the gala were particularly taken with the choirs of black singers who were accompanied by musicians from their respective countries. The singers and musicians had been selected by Dr. Stéphen Chauvet [sic] from among the African soldiers at Camp Saint-Maur and he had gone there to make them practice for months.

Even while he was building up his own collection, Chauvet was also thinking about French museums and he was very generous to them. In February 1929, he made a gift of a very large collection of works of art and weapons, both African and from Oceania, to the Trocadéro Museum. He is counted among the major benefactors of the museum and his name is engraved on the wall of the entrance hall. Other beneficiaries of his largesse were the Ethnographic Museums in Rouen (1931) and Lyon (1930), the Maritime Museum in Brest (1931-1932), and

Ethnographic Museum in Cherbourg (1933). But, among the museums in the provinces, it is the Lafaye Museum in La Rochelle, which is managed with as much zeal and intelligence as ingenuity by our friend Dr. Loppé, that was the focus of Chauvet’s most attentive concern. An entire room at the museum bears his name, as a testament to his many donations.

Chauvet’s tastes brought him into contact with all those who, between the two World Wars, were interested in indigenous art: antiquarians such as Pierre Loeb on the Rue de Seine; Paul Guillaume on the Rue de La Boétie; Le Vel, who does business on the banks of the Seine; Bela Hein, and the antiquarian on the Rue des Saints-Pères; as well as genuine collectors, among whom Dr. Poncetton, an erudite physician and one-time journalist at the "Figaro" and "Debates", and Francis Fénéon, are the best-known.

After the Colonial Exhibition, Dr. Chauvet extended his interest in indigenous arts through major published works: first, there was his book on the art of New Guinea; then there was a book into which he wanted to gather all the available documentation on Easter Island.

These written works do show, to some extent, the haste with which they were produced. Pedants will discover some imperfections in them; missionaries will find some assignments of locales a little hasty or even wrong. His works are far from the grand productions of Van den Steinen and Sarazin. He pours all his documentation onto the page with a facility and brio that are totally French. But, in spite of their imperfections, these books are still books that one should keep at hand and that one does, indeed, consult. His work on "the medicine of primitive peoples" was, originally, one of the first chapters in a "History of Medicine".

The Second World War and poor health put an end, to all intents and purposes, to Dr. Chauvet’s work. He started to write "The Art of Tahiti and French Polynesia" but did not get beyond a first draft. Circumstances prevented him from completing it. In fact, he spent a good part of the war in Monpazier (in the Dordogne), where he had bought a house on a whim during a trip. He died in Paris on April 2, 1950. He was a Commander of the Legion of Honor.


Editor's and Translator's notes


[1] b. 1900 d.1988

[2] A learnèd society of which Stéphen-Chauvet was a founding member.

[3] The Museum of Natural History in Paris, of which Louis Mangin was director from 1919 to 1931.

[4] That is, the Western front during the Second World War.

[5] Zinder was the administrative center of the French in Nigeria until 1926.

[6] The French word used here means "turnips".


Original article ("Nécrologie") copyright © by the Société des Océanistes.



ship illustration from original Chauvet title page



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