Polynesia, 1600–1800 A.D.

  • Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri)
  • Image (Too) representing the deity Oro
  • Male Figure


1600 A.D.

1650 A.D.

1650 A.D.

1700 A.D.

1700 A.D.

1750 A.D.

1750 A.D.

1800 A.D.

Pomare dynasty, Tahiti, 1796–1879


In Polynesia, the years 1600 to 1800 witness a continuation of earlier artistic traditions as well as the first intensive contact with European explorers. Pivotal events during this period are the three voyages of the English explorer James Cook between 1768 and 1780. During these voyages, Cook not only encounters many Polynesian peoples and cultures for the first time but makes the first large-scale collections of Pacific objects to be brought back to Europe. Collections made by Cook in Hawai’i, Tahiti, Tonga, Easter Island, and the Austral, Cook, and Marquesas Islands show that the classical Polynesian artistic traditions were already flourishing throughout the region.

Key Events

  • 1722

    Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen lands on Easter Island and publishes the first description of its monumental stone sculptures. He later visits the Tuamotus and Samoa.

  • 1767

    English explorer Samuel Wallis is the first European to visit Tahiti.

  • 1768

    French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville visits Tahiti, the Tuamotus, and Samoa.

  • 1768–80

    English explorer James Cook makes three voyages to the Pacific and charts many of the Polynesian archipelagos, including Tonga, New Zealand, the Society Islands, and Hawai’i, where he is killed in 1779. The “artificial curiosities” collected on Cook’s expeditions represent the first systematic collections of Oceanic art brought back to the West.

  • 1770s

    Published accounts of Tahiti have a profound influence on European intellectuals of the Romantic movement, who idealize the Tahitians and other Oceanic peoples as “Noble Savages.”


  • 1797

    Missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrive in the Society and Marquesas Islands. In the same year, the first Europeans, led by British navigator James Wilson, arrive on Mangareva.

  • 1797–1860s

    Widespread conversion of Polynesian peoples to Christianity. The majority of Polynesian sculptures are destroyed as “graven images” at the insistence of Christian missionaries.


“Polynesia, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09&region=ocp (October 2003)