Carolyn and I have admired the work of French painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin, who was an influential post-Impressionist artist. Gauguin styled himself and his art as “savage, and he is particularly known for his experimental use of color, as well as for his paintings of the people and landscapes in Polynesia.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His father was a journalist, and his mother was the daughter of a proto-socialist leader. Due to the political climate in France at the time, in 1850 Gauguin’s family sailed to Peru and his father died of a heart attack on the voyage. Gauguin lived in Lima for four years with his uncle, mother, and sister.
It was in Lima that Gauguin first encountered art, when his mother collected Pre-Columbian Inca pottery. In 1855, Gauguin and his family returned to France, where he lived with his grandfather in Orleans. Gauguin learned to speak French, although his first and preferred language remained Peruvian Spanish. Gauguin attended a Catholic boarding school, and although he did well in his studies, he disliked the school.
In 1865, Gauguin joined the merchant marines, and three years later he joined the French navy, where he served for two more years. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he worked as a stockbroker, and he became a successful businessman for eleven years. Gauguin came to art late in his life; he had no formal art training, and there is little in his early life that seems to predict his outstanding artistic career.
In 1873, Gauguin married a Danish woman, and over ten years they had five children. It was around this time that Gauguin began painting in his spare time. Gauguin also visited galleries and collected works by Impressionist artists. Gauguin formed a friendship with Camille Pissarro, and he visited him on Sundays to paint in his garden. Pissarro introduced Gauguin to a community of other artists, such as Paul Cézanne, who he also occasionally painted with. In 1881 and 1882, Gauguin showed paintings at Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, although he received dismissive reviews at the time.
In 1884, Gauguin moved his family to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he pursued a new career as a tarp salesman, which he wasn’t very successful at, perhaps because he couldn’t speak Danish, and there wasn’t much a market for French tarps in Denmark. However, Gauguin’s wife was able to support them by giving French lessons to diplomats.
It was during this time that Gauguin’s marriage began to fall apart, the stock market crashed, and he began painting full-time. In 1885, Gauguin returned to Paris, where he initially had difficulty re-entering the art world, lived in poverty, and was forced to take a series of menial jobs. However, Gauguin continued to paint, and in 1886 he exhibited 19 paintings at the last Impressionist exhibition, although many of these paintings were from very earlier periods in his life, such as from his time in Denmark.
In 1886, Gauguin spent time at an artist’s colony in Brittany, where he was popular with the young art students. In 1887, Gauguin sailed to a French Caribbean Island with painter Charles Laval, where he intended to “live like a savage.” Up until this point, Gauguin’s paintings were done in an Impressionist style, and this was where he changed his style. His paintings Tropical Vegetation and By the Sea were done in a new post-Impressionist style, where he began working with blocks of color in large, unmodulated planes.
Later that year Gauguin returned to France, where he adopted a new sense of identity— connected with his Peruvian ancestry, and incorporating “primitivism” into his artistic vision. Primitivism is a mode of aesthetic idealization that values that which is simple and unsophisticated, and seeks to express the experience of primitive times, places and people in art or literature, as well as in a philosophy of life.
In 1888, Gauguin began searching for what he called “a reasoned and frank return to… primitive art.” He began painting with broad planes of color, clear outlines, and more simplified forms. Gauguin coined the term “Synthetism” to describe his style during this period. This refers to the synthesis of his paintings’ formal elements with the ideas or emotions that they conveyed. Gauguin no longer used lines and color to replicate an actual scene, as he had as an Impressionist, but rather explored the capacity of those pictorial forms to induce a particular feeling in the viewer.
That same year Gauguin traveled to the south of France, where he went to stay with Vincent van Gogh in Arles. This was done partially as a favor to van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was an art dealer that had agreed to represent Gauguin. However, as soon as Gauguin arrived in Arles, the two artists began engaging in heated exchanges about the purpose of art. Gauguin had initially planned to stay in Arles through the spring, but his relationship with van Gogh grew ever more tumultuous. During a particularly intense quarrel, Gauguin claimed that van Gogh attacked him with a razor, and van Gogh then reportedly mutilated his own left ear. This proved to be too much for Gauguin to handle, and so he left for Paris after staying only two months.
Gauguin eventually relocated to the remote village of Le Pouldu. There, he engaged in a heightened pursuit of “raw expression,” and he became interested in the ancient monuments of medieval religion, such as crosses and representations of Christ’s crucifixion. Gauguin began incorporating this imagery into his artwork, such as in his painting The Yellow Christ. Gauguin said that he identified with Jesus, because he felt lonely and misunderstood, and he compared his suffering and burden to that of Jesus. In his artworks, Gauguin painted Jesus with some of his own facial features.
In 1891, Gauguin moved to Tahiti, where he had a romantic image of an untouched paradise. However, when he arrived he was disappointed by the extent to which French colonization had actually corrupted the island. Nonetheless, Gauguin attempted to immerse himself in what he believed were the authentic aspects of the culture there, and he emulated Oceanic traditions in his artwork during this period.
In 1893, Gauguin returned to France, thinking that his new work would bring him the success that had thus far eluded him. In 1894, Gauguin created a book of his impressions of Tahiti from his journals, illustrated with his own artwork, titled Noa Noa. However, this project, and an exhibit at a gallery in Paris, met with little success. Gauguin self-published the text from his diary at the time, and it wasn’t published until a hundred years later with the woodblock illustrations, drawings, and sketches that he originally intended to accompany the text.
In 1895, Gauguin left for Tahiti again. However, he was increasingly “disgusted” with the rising Western influence in the French colony. In 1901, Gauguin moved to a more remote environment, on the French Polynesian island of Hiva Oa. He purchased land there, and with the help of his neighbors, he built a home that he called “the house of pleasure.”
In 1902, Gauguin began suffering from an advanced case of syphilis, which restricted his mobility, and he concentrated his remaining energy on drawing and writing. During this time Gauguin worked on his memoir, Before or After. Gauguin died in 1903, at the age of 54, and his memoir wasn’t published for another twenty years.
After his death, Gauguin’s influence grew substantially. A large part of his collection is now displayed in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Gauguin’s paintings are rarely offered for sale, but when they have been sold their prices reached tens of millions of dollars. Gauguin’s 1892 painting When Will You Marry? became the world’s third-most expensive artwork when it was sold for $210 million in 2014.
Some of the quotes that Paul Gauguin is known for include:
Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.
I shut my eyes in order to see.
Do not copy nature. Art is an abstraction. Rather, bring your art forth by dreaming in front of her and think more of creation.
Stay firmly in your path and dare; be wild two hours a day!
Color which, like music, is a matter of vibrations, reaches what is most general and therefore most indefinable in nature: its inner power.
Life is merely a fraction of a second. An infinitely small amount of time to fulfill our desires, our dreams, our passions. Such a little time to prepare oneself for eternity!
It is better to paint from memory, for thus your work will be your own.
Art is either revolution or plagiarism.
In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.