Gauguin had previously presented the Tahitians as a primitive people who lived in unity with nature as God had intended. He had described Tahiti as a paradise and compared it to the Garden of Eden. European civilisation, he had argued, was a corruption of man’s true nature and the product of human sin. Now he no longer portrayed the clash of cultures in such a fantastical manner but concentrated instead on genuine differences between European and Tahitian values.
“Not working” contrasts the easy-going Tahitian culture with the European work-ethic. Although Gauguin has accepted that he will never prosper as an artist he remains prolific and can not bear idleness. In this picture he contrasts his own attitudes with those of the two Tahitians lazily smoking a pipe. They are not ashamed of their idleness. There are no tools to prompt them to work. Their hut is empty and they possess only the bare essentials. They take pleasure in inactivity just like the dog sitting in the doorway and the cat snoozing at their feet. They are instinctive free-spirited creatures unlike Gauguin, a restless soul, who is portrayed wearing a white robe and gazing into the hut from a distance.
Gauguin no longer views the Tahitian lifestyle as evidence of man’s unity with nature. He simply accepts that different cultures have different belief systems. The Tahitians are more in tune with their natural instincts because they are less self-conscious than Europeans.