Paul Gauguin

The French painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), seeking exotic environments, first in France and later in Tahiti, frequently combined the people and objects in his paintings in novel ways, evoking in the process a mysterious, personal world.

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on June 7, 1848, to a French father, a journalist from Orléans, and a mother of Spanish-Peruvian descent. When Paul was 3 his parents sailed for Peru after the victory of Louis Napoleon; his father died on the way. Gauguin and his mother remained in Peru for 4 years and then returned to Orléans, where he attended a seminary. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the merchant marine.

In 1870 Gauguin began a career as a stockbroker and remained in this profession for 12 years. He married a Danish girl, Mette Sophia Gad, and seemed destined for a comfortable middle-class existence.

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Beginnings as an Artist

Gauguin was an enthusiastic Sunday painter. The Salon of 1876 accepted one of his pictures, and he started a collection of works by impressionist painters. As time went on, his desire to paint became ever stronger, and in 1883, Gauguin, now 35, decided to give up business and devote himself entirely to painting. His wife, wishing to economize, took their five children to live with her parents in Copenhagen. Gauguin followed her, but he soon returned with his eldest son, Clovis, to Paris, where he supported himself by pasting advertisements on walls.

In 1886, with Clovis enrolled in a boarding school, Gauguin lived for a few months in the village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, then left for the island of Martinique, first stopping to work as a laborer on the Panama Canal. He returned to Pont-Aven in February 1888, gathered about him a group of painters, including Émile Bernard, and preached and practiced a style he called synthetism, which involved pure color patterns, strong, expressive outlines, and formal simplifications.

In October, Vincent van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him at Arles. Gauguin, proud, arrogant, sarcastic, and urbanely sophisticated, and Van Gogh, open and passionately needing human companionship, did not get along. When Van Gogh threatened him with a razor, Gauguin hurriedly left for Paris. There he resumed his bohemian existence until 1891, when he left France and the Western civilization he had come to deride and went to Tahiti.

Pre-Tahitian Paintings

Among Gauguin's masterpieces of this period are the Vision after the Sermon—Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) and the Yellow Christ (1889). In both paintings Breton peasants, to whom Gauguin was attracted as exotic, noncultivated types, figure prominently. Gauguin's usual bright colors and simplified shapes treated as flat silhouettes are present, but these paintings also reveal his symbolist leanings. Objects and events are taken out of their normal historical contexts. In the Vision Breton women observe an episode described in Genesis: Jacob wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be an angel. Gauguin suggests thereby that the faith of these pious women enabled them to see miraculous events of the past as vividly as if they were occurring before them. In the Yellow Christ Gauguin, using as his model a yellow wooden statue from a church near Pont-Aven, depicts Breton women as if they were in the presence of the actual Crucifixion.

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Two Periods in Tahiti

When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, he did not settle in the capital, Papeete, which contained Europeans, but lived with the natives some 25 miles away. He took a native girl as his wife, and she bore him a son. III and poor, he returned to France in August 1893, where to his delight he found that he had inherited a small sum from an uncle. In Paris he lived with flair, accompanied much of the time by a Javanese girl named Annah, who later disappeared with the contents of his studio. The exhibition of his Tahitian work in November was not successful financially. In early 1894 he went to Denmark and then to Brittany.

In 1895 an unsuccessful auction of Gauguin's paintings was held. He sailed for Tahiti that spring. He settled again among the natives, this time in the north. His health grew poorer; an ankle he had broken in Brittany did not heal properly, and he suffered from syphilis and strokes. He was harassed by the government authorities, whom he flouted but upon whom he had to depend for menial jobs in order to support himself. In 1901 he moved to the Marques as Islands. He died there, alone, of a stroke on May 8, 1903.

Tahitian Paintings

Gauguin once advised a friend to avoid the Greek and choose rather "the Persian, the Cambodians, and a little of the Egyptian." He epitomized the disenchantment of several postimpressionist painters with bourgeois Parisian existence; but whereas Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec sought the Parisian demimonde and Van Gogh fled to Arles, Gauguin achieved what was perhaps the most extreme break when he left Europe for a non-Western culture.

Gauguin's Tahitian paintings celebrate the lushness and mysterious splendor of his new environment. At the same time they are seldom correct pictures of Tahitian life, from an anthropological standpoint, but rather feature recastings and recombinations of objects and persons taken out of their normal settings, as was the case with several of his paintings done in Brittany. In La Orana Maria (1891) a Tahitian woman, her young son, and two women standing nearby are shown in the obvious attitudes of the Virgin and Child with attendant saints or worshiping angels. In Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898), Gauguin's most ambitious painting in terms of size, number of figures, and probable overlay of meanings, there are Tahitian natives in unusual and probably contrived meditative poses and a foreboding primitive idol. In a way yet to be explained, the painting has to do with human destiny.

Gauguin's art, in several ways, anticipated trends in 20th-century modernism. For example, his unusual juxtapositions and startling anachronisms can be seen as precursors of the dislocations in the surrealist art of the 1920s and later. His whole life, as well as the style and subject matter of most of his art, was instrumental in paving the way for the positive acceptance of primitive art objects on the part of German expressionist and other 20th-century artists.

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Further Reading on Paul Gauguin

Dennis Sutton, ed., Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals (1958), contains poignant accounts of Gauguin's struggle to survive after he left France. John Rewald, Gauguin (1938), has little analysis of the paintings but extensive quotations from Gauguin's writings. Robert Goldwater, Gauguin (1957), contains beautiful illustrations, including watercolors seldom seen, and good analyses of the paintings. Christopher Gray, Sculpture and Ceramics of Paul Gauguin (1963), is the authoritative work on this aspect of the artist. Wayne Andersen, Gauguin's Paradise Lost (1971), is a psychological interpretation of Gauguin's art and life. An important background study is John Rewald, Postimpressionism, vol. 1 (1956; 2d ed. 1962).