Gauguin painted The Meal in the first months after his arrival in Tahiti. Despite his desire to paint life on the island, his first canvases are contrived. This is not a real meal, but a scene arranged in two separate registers: in the foreground a still life justifying the title of the painting, and in the background, two boys and a girl sitting in a row.
The proportions of the still life are astonishing. The hand of bananas, called fei in Tahitian, takes up nearly a quarter of the composition with the enormous fruit bordering on vermilion and the purple shadow cast on the tablecloth. The carved wooden bowl holding coconut milk, but traditionally used for fish, is also an impressive size. To complete his composition and add splashes of colour, Gauguin has included a European faience bowl, a calabash serving as a jug, fruit, a partly-eaten guava and some oranges. A knife placed at an angle indicates depth. The white cloth, with its neat folds, is also a reminder of compositions by Cézanne or Manet.
This carefully composed still life has nothing to do with a real meal, especially since it is not customary in Tahiti to eat at a table. Gauguin has put together these familiar items for purely decorative, exotic effect.
The children sitting behind the table do not seem to be very interested in the food. They are casting sidelong glances as if worried or puzzled. The presence of a mysterious figure sitting in a pool of light in the courtyard intensifies the troubling dimension of the scene, the sense of which still escapes us today.