Paul Gauguin was a post-impressionist and Symbolist painter from the 19th century who came from the Pont-Aven School of art. He started out as a painter of religious and genre paintings. He began to add stronger, brighter colors in large patches. Gauguin always believed that he had "primitive" and "savage" blood, originating from his ancestors. He made a trip to Tahiti where he created paintings inspired by the unspoiled natural landscapes and the natives, who he believed were not ruined by Western thought and civilization. Gauguin stood firm in his belief that technology and modern thought had ruined Europe and it was his duty to show the clean and paradisical nature of primitivism. Gauguin made several trips to Tahiti, finally settling there in order to paint. He eventually became ill and upon hearing of the death of his daughter, painted his greatest painting "Where do We Come From? What are We? Where are We Going?" as a suicide note before attempting an arsenic poisoning. He failed and lived on to create more art until his quiet death.

Like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) favored subjective expression and rejected objective representation. Gauguin wrote with dejection about Impressionism:
    The Impressionists study color exclusively, but without freedom, always shackled by need of probability. For them the ideal landscape, created from many different entities, does not exist. Their edifice rests upon no solid base and ignores the nature of the sensations perceived by the means of color. They heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centers of thought, so falling into merely scientific reasoning.
Born in Paris on June 7,1848 into a liberal middle class family he spent an adventurous childhood in places such as Peru, followed by a short stint in the French navy and afterward enjoying a remarkable success as a Parisian stockbroker, he settled into a comfortable bourgeois existence with his wife and five children. He met artist Camille Pissarro at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and became a collector spending some 17,000 francs on works by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley , Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Armand Guillaumin. This event set in motion his experiment in painting and from 1879 to 1886 he exhibited with the Impressionists.

It was Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh who introduced him to Japanese prints when he spent a brief time with him in Arles in 1888. Soon after, Gauguin began to abandoned imitative art for expressiveness through color employing it in new and unexpected combinations making his art very different from Van Gogh's. More educated in its combination of exotic and rare elements it was widely decorative although it was no less beleaguered. He painted for a time as an amateur, however after taking lessons from Pissarro, he quit his successful brokerage business in 1883 and committed his life to painting. He and his family were reduced to paucity, but he refused to abandon his art for he believed that, in spite of the ridicule and neglect, art was his calling. His wife and children were left with out adequate subsidence and were forced to return to France to live with her family. His art did not sell at the onset so Gauguin began to search out more exciting subjects and a cheaper place to live residing for short periods in small villages in Brittany where he was a member of a small group of experimental painters known as the school of Pont-Aven.

Under the tutelage of Emile Bernard Gauguin renounced Impressionism and adapted a less naturalistic style which he termed synthetism. Paying visits to the tropics like Martinique he discovered what would inspire all of his future work and established his subjects as those people around him, drawn from primitive life set in tropical colors.

His attitude toward color separated from the Impressionists attitude of painstakingly placement of hues set off against one another. Color must be expressive above all else he professed and it was within the realm of the artist to determine the color in a work of art as a necessary part of its creation:Art is an abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than of the actual result. The only way to rise towards God is by doing as our divine Master does, create.

The younger generation was influenced greatly by Gauguin’s views and art. One was Parisian artist Maurice Denis, who said in Definition of Neo-Traditionalism in 1890:

    Gauguin freed us from all the restraints which the idea of copying nature had placed upon us. For instance, if it was permissible to use vermilion in painting a tree which seemed reddish . . . why not stress even to the point of deformation the curve of a beautiful shoulder or conventionalize the symmetry of a bough?
In 1891, in debt and ruined, Gauguin set sail for the South Seas to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” A complex mixture of Eastern and Western elements became integrated into some areas of Gauguin’s art. These themes were generally shared within the great masters of European Renaissance and applied as a result of his earlier study of non-European culture and arts.

In Tahiti and the Marquesas, where he spent the last decade of his life, Gauguin presented his deep admiration of primitive life and dazzling color in a succession of ornamental and brilliant canvases. The intention was frequently derived obliquely from native motifs, and the foundation of the color owed its atypical accord of lilac, pink, and lemon to the tropical plant life of the islands. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of such works is that of a refined, modern man attempting to understand an innocent and early way of life that was already endangered by European colonization.

Fond of using simple linear patterns and brad areas of flat color that recall Byzantine enamels and Medieval stained glass, which Gauguin appreciated. He effectively balanced many fundamentals that belonged to Renaissance and other eras using vaguely flattened forms that was comparable to the properties of Egyptian sculpture. Romantic art was stimulated by the wonder of “exotic” lands and their people peripheral to Europe; with Gauguin, a revision of non-European techniques in painting began. He embodied a new defiance, not just against conventional art, but also against the whole of European civilization. According to Gauguin, civilization is what makes you sick. This quest for vigor in new people and new life styles, embarked upon in the 1700’s now picked up speed, anticipating the twentieth century interest in drawing artistic insights from Japan, the Pacific Islands and from much of the non-European world.

An uneasy consciousness of psychic tension, discontent with the burdens of civilization and a perception of predictability and degradation it can bring with it, colored the disposition of many artists toward the end of the century and throughout the years prior World War I. Art and literature languished during this fin de siècle as a kind of malaise compounded by despondency, tedium, morbidity, and hypersensitivity to the esthetic. Painters influenced by Gauguin and Van Gogh regularly understood it in harsh observations communicated in bitter distortion of both form and color. A switch from recording the present-day outlook, with all its diversity and human interest at the Impressionists had done just a few decades before.

With the exception of one trip to France from 1893 to 1895 Gauguin lived in the tropics for the rest of his life, first in Tahiti, then later in the Marquesas Islands. His style and vital distinctiveness of his work kept its archaic traits of meaningful color, denial of perspective and flat thick forms. With the influence of tropical primitivism his subject matter become more original and his scale larger and more magnificent. Scenes ranged from ordinary life such as Two Women on the Beach (1891) to ominous scenarios of superstitious trepidation such as the Spirit of the Dead(1892). Probably his most infamous and renown painting is his monumental allegory Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? an oil on canvas painted in 1897. He set the scene in a paradise of tropical beauty: the Tahiti of daylight, self-determination, and the color that Gauguin left his job and country to discover. A little stream runs through the forest, and behind it is a vast slice of sparkling blue ocean, with the misty mountains of a second islet expanding afar. Gauguin’s intention was to convey clearly that this picture was his testament. Feeling unappreciated he created a story that he was quite ill and resolved to commit suicide. He wrote to a friend, relating his journey into the mountains with arsenic. After he ingested it he awoke to find himself still very much alive, and returned to paint more. It is sad that so great an artist felt he needed to manufacture a ploy to get people to appreciate his work.

Today this French postimpressionist painter, whose verdant multicolored two dimensional forms and primitive subject matter that helped form the basis for modern art might be satisfied to see the many now that view his work with admiration. It was a modest salary from a Parisian art dealer that sustained him until his death at Atuana in Marquesas on May 9, 1903.

Gauguin’s intrepid experiments in coloring led directly to the twentieth century Fauvist style in modern art and his strong modeling influenced artist Edvard Munch and the later school of Expressionists.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Gauguin, (Eugéne Henri) Paul," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

In Goldwater and Treves, eds., Artists on Art, p 373.

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)

The amazing life of Paul Gauguin and his conception of art are closely allied; they are the products of peculiar heredity,nineteenth century civilization, the Impressionist movement and the poetry of the Symbolists. There is no better example of the driving power of creative impulse than the existence of the outcast painter upon whom genius descended so late in life.

The son of a journalist, Paul Gauguin was born on June 7th, 1848, in the heart of Paris. On his mother's side he was of Peruvian stock. In 1851 his father, for political reasons, found it necessary to emigrate and sailed with his family to Peru. However, M. Clovis Gauguin died before they reached Lima where the widow and her two children remained for four years. Life in the tropics during the most impressionable period of childhood must have haunted Gauguin ever since.

When he was seven, his mother took him back to be educated in France; at the age of nine he tried to run away, carrying a handkerchief filled with sand and knotted at the end of a stick. At sixteen, after leaving the Lycee of Orleans, he insisted on going to sea. He started out as a midshipman in the Merchant Marine; six years later he gave up the career as an ordinary seaman in the Navy.

On his return, he was taken care of by friends of his mother's (she had died in his abscence) and settled down in Paris to a quiet, humdrum existence as an assistant broker. As soon as his financial circumstances made it possible, he married Mette Gad, a staid, housewifely Danish girl with whom he had fallen in love at first sight.

Gone was all thought of adventure. The years went by; five children, a well regulated life, office work precise and legal, requiring no imagination, left no room for fantasy. Yet on Sundays he spent his time painting traditional lanscapes and carving children's heads. At the age of 28, he exhibited a picture at the Salon; an amateur artist, no more, and his ambition carried him no farther.

It was then that he met the Impressionist painters whose bright, live colors create reality anew. He was spellbound by their method which was at last attaining recognition. He exhibited with the group and acheived a certain measure of success. His painting at that time greatly resembles Pissarro's whose exotic origin created a bond of sympathy between them.

Suddenly, one day, at the age of 35, he resigned from his office and announced to his startled wife that he had resolved to devote his time entirely to painting. It must be said for Mette that, although she thouroughly disapproved of his venture, she bore with him for a whole year. At the end of this period, when the family's savings had dwindled to nothing, she decided to return to her mother in Denmark, where he followed her out of sheer despair.

In Copenhagen, unwilling to live on his wife's family, Gauguin tried to earn his living by travelling for an awning factory. His hot temper made him totally unfit for such work;once in a rage he threw a glass of water at a client. A sense of failure, the feeling that instead of painting he was wasting precious time in the futile pursuit of his daily bread, embittered him and he lost no opportunity of shocking his prim in-laws by his Bohemian ways. Finally he took his delicate nine year old son Clovis and, leaving the four other children with his wife, returned to Paris. Life became increasingly difficult. Clovis fell ill from want of food. Gauguin was stubborn and proud; rather than return to the broker's office he got a job pasting posters in order to keep his sick boy alive. Fortunately he was placed in charge of the poster firm's publicity department which enabled him to send Clovis to boarding school, where Mette later found the boy and took him back to Denmark.

Neither poster pasting now office woork prevented Gauguin from painting, but hunger, cold and incessent work soon landed him in a hospital where he was forced to remain for nearly a month. His wife in the meantime sent him no encouragement whatever; she found it hard to earn her living and support her children which she did by translating the work of French writers, and particularly Zola who was a friend of theirs. She did not spare Gauguin in her letters.

As soon as he had saved a little money, he went to Pont-Aven in Brittany, lured by the cliffs and moors of the Land's End of France. He painted uncouth, homely figures of peasants who hands are unaccustomed to idleness, and Calvary with divine figures as stiff and poignantly primitive as the mysterious prehistoric cromlechs and menhirs scattered about the Breton countryside.

From the Pont-Aven period onwards, Gauguin's aim was to paint symbolically, "away from Nature." Thus although his Breton peasants and later his South Sea natives are perfectly realistic, the objects of their worship (whether they be The Yellow Christ and Calvary of the Breton priod, or Hail, Mary and The Idol of the Tahitian pictures) are represented as though they wre imagined and expressed by the simple Breton fisher-folk or the primitive Tahitian islanders.

In 1887, Gauguin decided to try his luck in the happy lands of his boyhood travels and, persuading another painter, Charles Laval, to join, set out for Panama where the digging of the canal seemed to them an excellent means of earning their passage and several months freedom to paint. For weeks they spent twelve hours a day excavating the rocky soil with no thought of painting. Finally, the Panama crash released them and they went to Martinique where tropical fevers got the better of them both and compelled them to return to France

Back in Paris, homeless and penniless again, Gauguin was luckily befriended by Emelie Schuffenecker, a fellow artist who had followed his example and given up a financial career in order to paint. Having sold with his help a few pictures and carved stoneware, Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven, His ideas had by then taken definite shape and he expounded them to the circle of friends and disiciples who began to cluster around him. "Let everything you do breathe peace and calm of soul," he used to say. "Avoid all animated attitudes. Each of your figures should be perfectly static." In this we cannot but see the influence of the poet Baudelaire and his hatred of "line-displacing movement."

Before his first voyage, Gauguin had become friendly with Vincent Van Gogh who now invited him to stay with him in Arles. The idea was to create a brotherhood of painters but harmony did not reign long between then; in a few weeks they quarreled and the unbalanced Vincent, after theatening Gauguin with a razor, cut off one of his own ears in a fit of remorse. The two painters influenced each other; it was partly from Van Gogh that Gauguin acquired the Japanese style of some of his paintings.

Gauguin returned to Brittany, where he went on working intensely. Many of his friends came to stay with him at the inn kept by Mlle. Marie Henry whose protrait he painted; all encouraged him and listened to his advice. Jacob's Struggle with the Angel, intended for the Church of Pont-Aven, was, however, refused with horror by the curate.

Gauguin painted from memory or from notes taken during his walks or observations; he never used a model. He did not like to imitate nature but held that an artist should create a new world out of the materials nature afforded. His aims was to express the mystery he felt before its wonders and for him as for Van Gogh, everything had a meaning; color and design served to carry a message by means of suggestion rather than outright representation. This was also the aim in another sphere of art of the Symbolist poets who formed part of his circle. To Verlaine and his friends colors and sounds were related and bore in themselves a great part of the ideas they were intended to convey. Other poets spoke in riddles; all tried to express themselves instead of representing the world around them. That is why Gauguin is an expressionaist and if he is sometimes difficult to understand it is because we have to adapt ourselves not only to his vision but also to his surroundings. Above all, Gauguin loved sun effects and the magic of pure color laid on in ample, sonorous strokes.

After another return to Paris where he sold some of the works painted in Brittany, Gauguin, by dint of pulling strings obtained a sommission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. He was to travel to Tahiti at his own expense, work there and bring back picture which the State promised to buy.

He arrived in Papeete on June 8th, 1891. He found the town over civilized for his taste and chose to reside at Mataeia in the heart of the island. Thre he lived with a sweet, silent Tahitian girl of thirteen and worked to his heart's content while his money lasted. It did not last long and moreover he fell seriously ill. During this period, he painted among other works, Manao Tupapau ("The Spirit of the Dead Watching"), a striking expression of the mystical fear which haunts the primitive mind of the native.

In 1893, however, overcome by illness and poverty, he was back in Paris. The Director of the Fine Arts Ministry had in the meantime been changed and the new one to whom Gauguin offered his paintings would not hear of him, considering no promise of his predecessor valid without a written commitment, of which the trusting painter had never even though.

So Gauguin, after an unsatisfactory sale of his latest pictures, settled down in Paris, having providentially inherited some money. But peace was not for him. During a trip to Brittany with a Javanese girl he had picked up in Paris, he got into a brawl with some drunken sailors, one of whom gave him a kick which broke his ankle. He was in the hospital again for several weeks. In the meantime, the girl went back to Paris and made off with all his belongings. Thoroughly disgusted, Gauguin decided to leave France for good; somehow he blamed European civilization for the dishonesty of his Javanese paramour. A last desperate appeal to his wife, whom he never ceased to love, entreating her to come away to the south seas with him and the children, met with a refusal and Gauguin went back alone.

So numerous were the moral, physical and financial setbacks he had to bear on his return to Tahiti, that it is a wonder he had the courage to carry on. His daughter Aline, the only member of the family who truly loved and admired him, died in Denmark, his foot would not heal and no money was forthcoming from the sale of his pictures in France. Despair drove him to attempt at suicide which failed because he took too strong of a dose of Arsenic. But out of his struggles grew a strange and haunting composition, painted on sackcloth in blue and green, with orange figures: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

For a year he was obliged to give up painting and take an office job in Papeete in order to live. Then at last he received some money from France where the dealers were selling his pictures. The guileless painter had either been cheated or simply forgotten. He returned to his inland studio which he found greatly damaged by rats and rain. It was then that being at odds with the authorities, who objected to his carefree ways, he published a monthly satirical journal The Smile. He wroite the articles, illustrated with his woodcuts and was his own printer. Finally the enmity of the village officials also the fear of influenza drove him away from Tahiti and in 1901 he went to Hiva Oa, an island of the Marquesas, settling down at Atuana where he built a new studio.

He was fifty-three; with his usual optimism he decorated his home which he called "La Maison du Jouis" (The House of Enjoyment ) and set to work again. However the illness which made him so irritable would leave him no respite. Again he quarreled with the gendarme of the village, defending the natives, whom he loved and who loved him no less, against the exactions of the officials. He was finally charged with encouraging rebellion, tried and condemned to imprisonment and a fine. A fighter to the last, he appealed to the higher court at Tahiti and was about to attend the session when he had a relapse and died, alone in his studio hut, on May 8th, 1903.

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