Rosin’s Arrival

 

Martinique and Tahiti were separated by thirty long, dreary days by boat, but once Tahiti hit the horizon, Rosin knew he made the right decision. He constantly wrote that he was really worried the island’s beauty was exaggerated but quickly found that was not the case: “the waves striking against the coral reef, the lagoon as still and blue as a watercolor, and then the great line of coconut trees all around the edge of the island, and the beautiful mountains and valleys rising immediately behind.”[1] It was love at first sight, and the time he spent in Tahiti forever altered Rosin’s artistic development.

The ship docked in Papeete, the only town on Tahiti at the time, on June 4th 1933. While the underdeveloped island apparently annoyed a few of the other Americans, Rosin loved it; he wrote that any disappointment felt by others was caused by the lack of polished marble, shiny aluminum, and ceramic bathroom fixtures. He constantly wrote how charming he found the people, the culture, and the town itself.[2]

After arriving, Rosin met with the stepson of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, Lloyd Osbourne, whom he had met in France.[3] Osbourne lived on the island with Stevenson forty years before, and wanted to see how it had developed. A single road encircled Tahiti, so Rosin and Osbourne hired a taxi to help them tour the island. Its majesty was not lost up close. Rosin said it was all he ever could have expected, and Osbourne happily reported it had lost none of its beauty over the last four decades.[4]

After spending several days in Papeete, Rosin found a plot of land about eight miles outside of the town and negotiated rent of about four and a half dollars a month.[5] He moved into a chicken coop that had been built on the plot, which he would eventually convert into his studio.[6] Then, with the help of some natives, Rosin built his own thatched house. He became friends with his neighbors, the Fara family, but wrote that most of the natives weren’t quite sure what to make of him. He spent a lot of his time hiding away in his studio, which was already an odd sight, owing to the skylight he installed to help him sculpt. Years later Rosin would recount how passing bus drivers would slow and point out the old window installed in his roof.[7]

Rosin assumed he was the first sculptor to work on the island as well, since those who did come to visit him were very surprised when they began to see “a likeness begin to appear.”[8] It took them a little while to get used to Rosin, though he stated his status was boosted after a local judge, who was interested in painting, started to visit.[9]

In a letter to a friend, Rosin said that he expected to be able to live for about $20 a month, which would allow him to focus more on his own art.[10] Rosin sculpted what could arguably be some of his best works while living in Tahiti and opined that Tahitians were perfect models for sculpting. He wrote that neither height nor weight were as important as harmonious proportions. A model that is “well-proportioned and full of form” will “make a beautiful model.”[11] Rosin also knew that it was vital for a model to have a face full of character, since he did not powder or paint his statues. He found all of these qualities in the Tahitian natives.

Working and Commissions

 

As San Francisco was only a ten-day boat ride away, Rosin would occasionally come back to the United States to exhibit his work and complete commissions. In 1933, he showed a few of his compositions at the International Sculpture Show held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and created “quite the stir.”[12] Rosin’s “Torso of Tehiva”, a beautiful sculpture of one of the island natives, was completed in 1933 and subsequently exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, after being shown at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. “Hina Rapa”, a bronze of a native Tahitian queen emerging from a pool sculpted in 1935, would eventually win the Widener Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1939.

In November 1934, actor Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge visited Tahiti for a month’s vacation and loved Rosin’s work. Along with having their son Freddy pose for a portrait bust, they would eventually buy a version of the “Head of Tehiva.” Rosin said they were among the most delightful people he had ever met and visited them during one of his trips back to the states. In fact, he chalked up most of his commission referrals to March and his wife.[13]

Tahiti was actually quite the destination for wealthy vacationers, and Rosin would go on to meet other interesting people. Aksel Wichfeld, champion sword-fisherman and husband of Fifi Widener, whose father was the founding benefactor for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., commissioned a portrait bust, as did the Countess de D’ampierre. He even met Charles Nordhoff, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, who lived just a half-mile farther along the coast.[14] The two quickly became friends, and Rosin subsequently sculpted one his finest works, the head of Nordhoff’s young daughter “Miko”.

In total, Rosin spent fours years in Tahiti, though he wanted to spend more. Shortly after settling in Tahiti, Rosin met a captivating young woman named Vilna Spitz. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, the Tahitian born Spitz was of charming disposition and intriguing heritage. Her great-grandfather had captained an English whaling schooner in the Pacific Ocean during the nineteenth century, and her great-grandmother was a Tahitian Princess. Although he had been a bachelor for thirty-eight years, Rosin was enamored with Ms. Spitz and the two married on September 19th, 1936. Wishing not to leave his new bride, whom had never left the shores of Tahiti, during one of his tours of the states, he brought her along on March 31st, 1937. The young couple intended to return to the island in short order. However, with World War II fast on the horizon, they had to decide whether to risk living in Tahiti or to remain in the United States. They chose to stay and moved into a small apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City.

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[1]  Avalon Hotel Transcript, pp 7-8.

[2]  Rosin spends nearly two pages in the Avalon Hotel letters discussing Tahitian culture and celebrations.

[3]  Rosin refers to him as “Mr. Osborn.” (sic)

[4]  Autobiography, pp 5-6.

[5]  Letters of Interest, June 1933 (second) p. 2.

[6]  Ibid.

[7]  New Hope Gazette, March 1 1951, Here’s Ko-Ken.

[8]  Autobiography, p. 7.

[9]  Ibid.

[10]  Letters of Interest, June 1933, p. 2.

[11]  Every Week Magazine.

[12]  Obituary.

[13]  Letters of Interest, Dec 9 1935, p.2.

[14]  Autobiography, pp 8-9.