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Paul Gauguin

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Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin
Gauguin, c. 1891
Born Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin
(1848-06-07)7 June 1848
Paris, France
Died 8 May 1903(1903-05-08) (aged 54)
Atuona, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
Known for Painting, sculpture, ceramics, engraving
Movement Post-Impressionism, Primitivism

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (French: ; 7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a French Post-Impressionist artist who was not well appreciated until after his death. Gauguin was later recognized for his experimental use of color and synthetist style that were distinguishably different from Impressionism. His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gauguin’s art became popular after his death and many of his paintings were in the possession of Russian collector Sergei Shchukin.[1] He was an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, print-maker, ceramist, and writer. His bold experimentation with coloring led directly to the Synthetist style of modern art, while his expression of the inherent meaning of the subjects in his paintings, under the influence of the cloisonnist style, paved the way to Primitivism and the return to the pastoral. He was also an influential proponent of wood engraving and woodcuts as art forms.[2][3]


Early life

Gauguin was born in Paris, France, to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the proto-socialist leader Flora Tristan, a feminist precursor whose father was part of an influential Peruvian family. In 1850 [4] the family left Paris for Peru, motivated by the political climate of the period. Clovis died on the voyage, leaving 18-month-old Paul, his mother, and sister, to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul's uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art. It was in Lima that Gauguin encountered his first art. His mother admired Pre-Columbian pottery, collecting Inca pots that some colonists dismissed as barbaric.

One of Gauguin's few early memories of his mother was of her wearing the traditional costume of Lima, one eye peeping from behind her manteau, the mysterious one-eye veil that all women in Lima went out in. [...] He was always drawn to women with a 'traditional' look. This must have been the first of the colourful female costumes that were to haunt his imagination."[5]

At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orléans to live with his grandfather. The Gauguins came originally from the area and were market gardeners and greengrocers: gauguin means "walnut-grower". His father had broken with family tradition to become a journalist in Paris. Gauguin soon learned French, though his first and preferred language remained Peruvian Spanish, and he excelled in his studies. After attending a couple of local schools, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school in La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, which he hated. He spent three years at the school. At 17, Gauguin signed on as a pilot's assistant in the merchant marine to fulfill his required military service. Three years later, he joined the French navy in which he served for two years. He was somewhere in the Caribbean when he found out that his mother had died. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. His mother's very rich boyfriend, Gustave Arosa, got him a job at the Paris Bourse; Gauguin was 23. He became a successful Parisian businessman and remained one for the next 11 years.

In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920). Over the next ten years, they had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–1897); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961). By 1884, Gauguin had moved with his family to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he pursued a business career as a tarpaulin salesman. It was not a success: He could not speak Danish, and the Danes did not want French tarpaulins. Mette became the chief breadwinner, giving French lessons to trainee diplomats.[6]

His middle-class family and marriage fell apart after 11 years when Gauguin was driven to paint full-time. He returned to Paris in 1885, after his wife and her family asked him to leave because he had renounced the values they shared. Paul Gauguin's last physical contact with them was in 1891. Like his friend Vincent van Gogh, with whom in 1888 he spent nine weeks painting in Arles, Paul Gauguin experienced many bouts of depression and at one time attempted suicide.

Artistic career

In 1873, around the same time as he became a stockbroker, Gauguin began painting in his free time. His Parisian life centred on the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Gauguin lived at 21 rue la Bruyère. All around were the cafés frequented by the Impressionists. Gauguin also visited galleries frequently and purchased work by emerging artists. He formed a friendship with Pissarro and visited him on Sundays, to paint in his garden, and Pissarro introduced him to various other artists. In 1877 Gauguin "moved downmarket and across the river to the poorer, newer, urban sprawls" of Vaugirard. Here, on the third floor at 8 rue Carcel, he had the first home in which he had a studio. He showed paintings in Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882 - (earlier a sculpture, of his son Émile, had been the only sculpture in the 4th Impressionist Exhibition of 1879.) Over two summer holidays, he painted with Pissarro and occasionally Paul Cézanne.

Poster of the 1889 Exhibition of Paintings by the Impressionist and Synthetist Group, at Café des Arts, known as the The Volpini Exhibition, 1889.

Early paintings

Gauguin, along with Les XX.

Cloisonnism and Synthetism

The Yellow Christ (Le Christ jaune), 1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Under the influence of folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin's work evolved towards Cloisonnism, a style given its name by the critic Édouard Dujardin in response to Émile Bernard's method of painting with flat areas of color and bold outlines, which reminded Dujardin of the Medieval cloisonné enameling technique. Gauguin was very appreciative of Bernard's art and of his daring with the employment of a style which suited Gauguin in his quest to express the essence of the objects in his art.[7] In The Yellow Christ (1889), often cited as a quintessential Cloisonnist work, the image was reduced to areas of pure color separated by heavy black outlines. In such works Gauguin paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of color, thereby dispensing with the two most characteristic principles of post-Renaissance painting. His painting later evolved towards Synthetism in which neither form nor color predominate but each has an equal role.


In 1887, after visiting Panama, Gauguin spent several months near Saint Pierre in Martinique, accompanied by his friend the artist Charles Laval. Paul Gauguin spent approximately 6 months on the island of Martinique in June to November 1887. His thoughts and experiences during this time are recorded in his letters to his wife Mette and his artist friend Emile Schuffenecker.[8] He arrived in Martinique by way of Panama where he had found himself broke and with out a job. At the time France had a policy of repatriation where if a citizen became broke or stranded on a French colony, the state would pay for the boat ride back. Upon leaving Panama protected by the repatriation policy, Gauguin and Laval decided to get off the boat at the Martinique port of St. Pierre. Scholars are in disagreement if Gauguin intentionally or spontaneously decided to stay on the island. At first, the 'negro hut' in which they lived suited him, and he enjoyed watching people in their daily activities.[9] However, the weather in the summer was hot and the hut leaked in the rain. Gauguin also suffered dysentery and marsh fever. While in Martinique, he produced between 10 and 20 works (12 being the most common estimate), traveled widely and apparently came into contact with a small community of Indian immigrants; a contact that would later influence his art through the incorporation of Indian symbols. During his stay, the writer Lafcadio Hearn was also on the island.[10] His account provides an historical comparison to accompany Gauguin’s images.

Gauguin finished 11 known paintings during his stay in Martinique, many of which seem to be derived from his hut. His letters to Schuffenecker express an excitement about the exotic location and natives represented in his paintings. Gauguin asserted that four of his paintings on the island were better than the rest.[11] The works as a whole are brightly colored, loosely painted, outdoor figural scenes. Even though his time on the island was short, it surely was influential. He recycled some of his figures and sketches in later paintings, like the motif in Among the Mangoes[12] which is replicated on his fans. Rural and indigenous populations remained a popular subject in Gauguin’s work after he left the island.

Martinique works

Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret), 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (F546)

Gauguin and Van Gogh

Gauguin's relationship with Van Gogh was rocky. In 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks painting together, at the latter's Yellow House in Arles. Their relationship deteriorated and eventually Gauguin decided to leave. On the evening of 23 December 1888 according to much later account of Gauguin's, van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade. Later the same evening van Gogh cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. He wrapped the severed tissue in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to "keep this object carefully."[13] Van Gogh was hospitalized the following day and Gauguin left Arles. They never saw each other again, but they continued to correspond and in 1890 Gauguin proposed they form an artist studio in Antwerp.[14] An 1889 sculptural self-portrait Jug in the form of a Head, Self-portrait appears to reference Gauguin's traumatic relationship with van Gogh.


I Raro te Oviri, 1891, Dallas Museum of Art

In 1891, Gauguin sailed to French Polynesia to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional".[15] He wrote a book titled Noa Noa describing his experiences in Tahiti. There have been allegations by modern critics that the contents of the book were fantasized and plagiarized.[16]

Gauguin left France again on 3 July 1895, never to return. His time away, particularly in Tahiti and [18]

Paul Gauguin, Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), 1892, The Museum of Modern Art

Living in Mataiea Village in Tahiti, he painted Fatata te Miti ("By the Sea"), La Orana Maria ("Ave Maria"), and other depictions of Tahitian life. In 1893 Gauguin returned to France, where he painted Mahana No Atua ("Day of the God", 1894) which depicted Tahitian religion, even though the idol in the center, Hina, is derived more from Indian and Southeast Asian archetypes.[19] Huts, mountains, dancers, a flute player, and other reminiscences of Polynesian life form the setting for the foreground subject of three women at the edge of a pool. Its illogical colors make the pool seem abstract, its apparent depth evoking a sort of symbolism: The woman whose toes touch the water on the left side of the pool represents birth; the figure in the middle, who is sitting upright with both feet in the water, represents life; while the figure on the right represents death by turning away from the pool.[19] He moved to Punaauia in 1897, where he created the masterpiece painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and then lived the rest of his life in the Marquesas Islands, returning to France only once, when he painted at Pont-Aven.

His works of that period are full of quasi-religious symbolism and an exoticized view of the inhabitants of Polynesia. In Polynesia, he sided with the native peoples, clashing often with the colonial authorities and with the Catholic Church. During this period he also wrote the book Avant et après (before and after), a fragmented collection of observations about life in Polynesia, memories from his life and comments on literature and paintings.

Historical significance

Primitivism was an art movement of late 19th-century painting and sculpture; characterized by exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts. The first artist to systematically use these effects and achieve broad public success was Paul Gauguin. [20] The European cultural elite discovering the art of Africa, Micronesia, and Native Americans for the first time were fascinated, intrigued and educated by the newness, wildness and the stark power embodied in the art of those faraway places. Like Pablo Picasso in the early days of the 20th century, Gauguin was inspired and motivated by the raw power and simplicity of the so-called Primitive art of those foreign cultures. [21]

Gauguin is also considered a André Derain; Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism, among others. Later he influenced Arthur Frank Mathews and the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

John Rewald, an art historian focused on the birth of Modern art, wrote a series of books about the Post-Impressionist period, including Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956) and an essay, Paul Gauguin: Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas (included in Rewald's Studies in Post-Impressionism, 1986), discusses Gauguin's years in Tahiti, and the struggles of his survival as seen through correspondence with the art dealer Vollard and others.[22]

Later years and death

Gauguin, c. 1895, playing a harmonium at Alphonse Mucha's studio at rue de la Grande-Chaumière, Paris (Mucha photo)
Paul Gauguin, ca.1891-1893, Tehura (Teha'amana), polychromed pua wood (Perfume Flower Tree), H. 22.2 cm. Realized during Gauguin's first voyage to Tahiti. Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In French Polynesia, toward the end of his life, sick and suffering from an unhealed injury, he got into legal trouble for taking the natives' side against French colonialists. On 27 March 1903, while living in the Marquesas Islands, he was charged with libeling the governor, M Guicheray, and given three days to prepare his defense. He was fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison. On 2 April, he appealed for a new trial in Papeete. At the second trial, Gauguin was fined 500 francs and sentenced to one month in prison. At that time he was being supported by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard.[23] Suffering from syphilis, he died at 11 a.m. on 8 May 1903 of an overdose of morphine and possibly a heart attack before he could start the prison sentence. His body had been weakened by alcohol. He was 54 years old.

Gauguin was buried in Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa at 2 p.m. the next day.

In 2014, forensic examination of four teeth found in a glass jar in a well near Gauguin's hut threw into question the conventional belief that Gauguin suffered from syphilis. DNA examination established that the teeth were almost certainly Gauguin's but no traces were found of the mercury that was used to treat syphilis at the time, suggesting either that Gauguin did not suffer from syphilis or that he was not being treated for it.[24]

Personal life

Gauguin outlived two of his children; his favorite daughter Aline died of pneumonia, his son Clovis died of a blood infection following a hip operation,[25] and a daughter, whose birth was portrayed in Gauguin's 1896 work Te tamari no atua, mothered by Gauguin's Tahitian mistress, Pau'ura, and who was born on Christmas Day 1896 but died several days after birth.[26] Émile Gauguin worked as a construction engineer in the U.S. and is buried in Lemon Bay Historical Cemetery, in Florida. Jean René became a well-known sculptor and a staunch socialist. He died on 21 April 1961 in Copenhagen. Pola (Paul Rollon) became an artist and art critic and wrote a memoir, My Father, Paul Gauguin (1937). Gauguin had several children by his mistresses: Germaine (born 1891) with Juliette Huais (1866–1955); Émile Marae a Tai (born 1899) with Pau'ura; and a daughter (born 1902) with Mari-Rose. There is some speculation that the Belgian artist Germaine Chardon was Gauguin's daughter. Emile Marae a Tai, illiterate and raised in Tahiti, was brought to Chicago by French journalist Josette Giraud in 1963 and became an artist of note.[25]


Paul Gauguin, 1894, Oviri (Sauvage), partially glazed stoneware, 75 x 19 x 27 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. The theme of Oviri is death, savagery, wildness. Oviri stands over a dead she-wolf, while crushing the life out of her cub. As Gauguin wrote to Odilon Redon, it is a matter of "life in death"

The vogue for Gauguin's work started soon after his death. Many of his later paintings were acquired by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. A substantial part of his collection is displayed in the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage. Gauguin paintings are rarely offered for sale; their price may be as high as US $39.2 million.

Gauguin's posthumous retrospective exhibitions at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1903 and an even larger one in 1906 had a stunning and powerful influence on the French avant-garde and in particular Pablo Picasso's paintings. In the autumn of 1906, Picasso made paintings of oversized nude women, and monumental sculptural figures that recalled the work of Paul Gauguin and showed his interest in primitive art. Picasso's paintings of massive figures from 1906 were directly influenced by Gauguin's sculpture, painting and his writing as well. The power evoked by Gauguin's work led directly to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907.[27]

According to Gauguin biographer David Sweetman, Picasso as early as 1902 became a fan of Gauguin's work when he met and befriended the expatriate Spanish sculptor and ceramist Paco Durrio (1875–1940), in Paris. Durrio had several of Gauguin's works on hand because he was a friend of Gauguin's and an unpaid agent of his work. Durrio tried to help his poverty-stricken friend in Tahiti by promoting his oeuvre in Paris. After they met, Durrio introduced Picasso to Gauguin's stoneware, helped Picasso make some ceramic pieces and gave Picasso a first La Plume edition of Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin.[28] In addition to seeing Gauguin's work at Durrio's, Picasso also saw the work at Ambroise Vollard's gallery where both he and Gauguin were represented.

Concerning Gauguin's impact on Picasso, John Richardson wrote,
The 1906 exhibition of Gauguin's work left Picasso more than ever in this artist's thrall. Gauguin demonstrated the most disparate types of art—not to speak of elements from metaphysics, ethnology, symbolism, the Bible, classical myths, and much else besides—could be combined into a synthesis that was of its time yet timeless. An artist could also confound conventional notions of beauty, he demonstrated, by harnessing his demons to the dark gods (not necessarily Tahitian ones) and tapping a new source of divine energy. If in later years Picasso played down his debt to Gauguin, there is no doubt that between 1905 and 1907 he felt a very close kinship with this other Paul, who prided himself on Spanish genes inherited from his Peruvian grandmother. Had not Picasso signed himself 'Paul' in Gauguin's honor.[29]

Both David Sweetman and John Richardson point to the Gauguin sculpture called Oviri (literally meaning 'savage'), the gruesome phallic figure of the Tahitian goddess of life and death that was intended for Gauguin's grave, exhibited in the 1906 retrospective exhibition that even more directly led to Les Demoiselles. Sweetman writes, "Gauguin's statue Oviri, which was prominently displayed in 1906, was to stimulate Picasso's interest in both sculpture and ceramics, while the woodcuts would reinforce his interest in print-making, though it was the element of the primitive in all of them which most conditioned the direction that Picasso's art would take. This interest would culminate in the seminal Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."[30]

Gauguin's grave in Atuona.
According to Richardson,
Picasso's interest in stoneware was further stimulated by the examples he saw at the 1906 Gauguin retrospective at the Salon d'Automne. The most disturbing of those ceramics (one that Picasso might have already seen at Vollard's) was the gruesome Oviri. Until 1987, when the Musée d'Orsay acquired this little-known work (exhibited only once since 1906) it had never been recognized as the masterpiece it is, let alone recognized for its relevance to the works leading up to the Demoiselles. Although just under 30 inches high , Oviri has an awesome presence, as befits a monument intended for Gauguin's grave. Picasso was very struck by Oviri. 50 years later he was delighted when [Douglas] Cooper and I told him that we had come upon this sculpture in a collection that also included the original plaster of his cubist head. Has it been a revelation, like Iberian sculpture? Picasso's shrug was grudgingly affirmative. He was always loath to admit Gauguin's role in setting him on the road to Primitivism.[31]

Critic Joel Silverstein in suggested Gauguin's style influenced painters such as Julian Hatton, Joan Miró and Ludwig von Hofmann.[32]

Gauguin's life inspired W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence. Mario Vargas Llosa based his 2003 novel The Way to Paradise on Gauguin's life, and that of his grandmother Flora Tristan.

Gauguin is also the subject of at least two operas: Federico Elizalde's Paul Gauguin (1943); and Gauguin (a synthetic life) by Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon. Déodat de Séverac wrote his Elegy for piano in memory of Gauguin.

The Danish produced film "Oviri" (1986) is a biographical film. It follows the painter from the time he returns to Paris in 1893 after a long stay in Tahiti and must confront his wife, his children, and his former lover. It ends when he returns to Tahiti two years later.

The Japanese styled Gauguin Museum, opposite the Botanical Gardens of Papeari in Papeari, Tahiti, contains some exhibits, documents, photographs, reproductions and original sketches and block prints of Gauguin and Tahitians. In 2003, the Paul Gauguin Cultural Center opened in Atuona in the Marquesas Islands.

In 2014 the painting Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien (1889), with an estimated value of between €10m and €30m (£8.3m to £24.8m), which had been stolen in London in 1970, was discovered in Italy. The painting, together with a work by Pierre Bonnard, had been bought by a Fiat employee in 1975, at a railway lost property sale, for 45,000 lira (about £32).[33]

List of paintings

For a comprehensive list, see List of paintings by Paul Gauguin.


  • 2014: Friction of Ideas: Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard, The Göteborg Museum of Art, Sweden.[34]



See also

Further reading and sources


  1. ^ "Shchukin Gauguin". Retrieved 2013-07-12. 
  2. ^ "Prints by Paul Gauguin", ArtServe: Australian National University.
  3. ^ "Woodcut and Wood Engraving".
  4. ^ Waldemar Januszczak, Gauguin: The Full Story, BBC TV documentary.
  5. ^ Gauguin: The Full Story, Waldemar Januszczak.
  6. ^ Januszczak, Full Story.
  7. ^ Staff (2004). "Gauguin, Paul".  
  8. ^ "Gauguin and Martinique," Karen Kristine Reichnitzer Pope, 1981.
  9. ^ Philip Vickers, "Martinique in Gauguin's Footsteps", Contemporary Review, 1 June 1997.
  10. ^ , Harper & brothers, New York, 1900Two Years in the French West IndiesLafcadio Hearn,
  11. ^ "Letters to his Wife and Friends," Paul Gauguin, 1946.
  12. ^ a b , Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamAmong the Mangoes
  13. ^ According to Doiteau & Leroy, the diagonal cut removed the lobe and probably a little more.
  14. ^ Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy and Auvers (exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Abrams, New York 1986. ISBN 0-87099-477-8 p. 62
  15. ^ "The painter who invented his own brand of artistic license," Arifa Akbar, The Independent, 20 April 2010.
  16. ^ Cotter, Holland. "The Self-Invented Artist".  
  17. ^ Hill, Amelia (7 October 2001). "Gauguin's erotic Tahiti idyll exposed as a sham".  
  18. ^ "Exhibit Puts Focus on Gauguin's Art, Sexual Misconduct".  
  19. ^ a b The Art Institute of Chicago. (2005). "Examination: Gauguin's Day of the God (Mahana No Atua)". Art Explorer. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  20. ^ Artspoke, Robert Atkins, 1993, ISBN 978-1-55859-388-6
  21. ^ Douglas Cooper, "The Cubist Epoch", pp. 11–221, Phaidon Press Limited 1970 in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art ISBN 0-87587-041-4
  22. ^ John Rewald, (1986). Studies in Post-Impressionism, Paul Gauguin–Letters to Ambroise Vollard and Andre Fontainas, 168-215.
  23. ^ John Rewald, "Paul Gauguin-Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas," in Studies in Post-Impressionism, publ. Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1986, pp. 168–215
  24. ^ Bailey, Martin. "Gauguin could be cleared of syphilis—by the skin of his teeth".  
  25. ^ a b Harrison Swain "Emile Gauguin Honor Guest at Artists' Ball" in The Evening Independent 26 January 1966, pp. 15
  26. ^ God's Child: Private Life of a Masterpiece (FLV).  
  27. ^  
  28. ^ Sweetman, 563
  29. ^ Richardson 1991, 461.
  30. ^ Sweetman, 562–563.
  31. ^ Richardson 1991, 459.
  32. ^ Silverstein, Joel (1 April 2001). "Curious Terrain". Retrieved 1 January 2010. The paintings sing to each other ... 
  33. ^ Lizzy Davies in Rome. "Stolen paintings hung on Italian factory worker's wall for almost 40 years | Art and design". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  34. ^ "Friction of Ideas: Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard".  Retrieved Sep. 26th, 2014. "". 

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