An exotic wooden figure of a Polynesian goddess -- carved by Paul Gauguin during his first visit to the island of Tahiti -- has been purchased by the the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Such Gauguins are extremely rare. This one cost the Hirshhorn more than $400,000.

Hina is its subject. Hina, Gauguin writes, is the "purely sensual" Polynesian spirit of the moon, the air, the sea, whom the first encountered while approaching Arorai, the island's "dreaded sacred mountain," in 1891. The air seemed charged with mystery. "Woe to him who risks his life in these parts, infested with demons," wrote Gauguin.

"Suddenly, at an abrupt turn, I saw a young nude girl straightened against a rock that she caressed, rather than clung to, with both hands. She drank from a spring which gushed from very high in the rocks.

When she had finished drinking, she took some water in her hands and let it run down between her breasts. Then, though I hadn't made a sound, she lowered her head like a timid antelope which instinctively scents danger, and peered into the thicket where I was hiding. My look did not meet hers. Hardly had she seen me when she plunged into the water . . .

"Immediately, I looked into the water: no one. Nothing but an enormous eel which wound in and out among the small stones at the bottom."

The goddess Hina, Gauguin writes, is the "clinging" spirit who intercedes with God seeking immortality for the race of men. Gauguin loved such stories. Though he had worked as a banker until the age of 35, Gauguin had grown increasingly displeased with a life wed to convention. He had already visited the "uncorrupted" cultures of Brittany and the Caribbean before traveling to the South Seas in search of the exotic in 1891. "Art," he wrote, "is an abstraction derived from nature while dreaming before it."

The Hirshhorn's Hina has been carved in shallow relief on a 14-inch-high log of tamanu wood. Her faces is like a mask. At her sides are two attendants.

The sculpture was once owned by Daniel de Monfried, the artist's faithful friend who, like Gauguin himself, had left his wife to pursue a career in art. Both men loved the sea. De Monfried had a yacht, and his tales of his voyages to exotic lands were an inspiration to Gauguin.

"Cylinder Decorated with Figure of Hina and Two Attendants" is the fourth work of art purchased by the Hirshhorn with matching funds provided by the Smithsonian's regents under a five-year acquisitions program designed to bring to Washington's museums works of exceptional merit. The program was initiated in 1978.That year the Hirshhorn bought a sculpture by Aristide Maillol, "Action in Chains," a monumental nude, for $368,000. Two additional works of art -- Gaston Lachaise's "Heroic Woman," a seven-foot-high bronze ($225,000), and Joan Miro's "Woman Before an Eclipse with Her Hair Disheveled by the Wind," a 1967 canvas ($450,000) -- were bought last year by the Hirshhorn. The new Gauguin will be on display through sept. 30.