Paul Gauguin

French painter, whose life as well as work has been seen as representing an all-out rejection of western civilization.

He was born in Paris, lived in Peru during 1851-55, and then again in France.

From 1865 to 1871, he was in the merchant service and the French navy. He took up painting in 1871 as a hobby while working in a Paris stockbroker’s office. In 1873, he married Mette Gad from Copenhagen. Gauguin’s passion for painting grew. He attended evening sessions at the Academic Colarossi and, having met Camille Pissarro, began to buy impressionist pictures.

In 1876, a Gauguin landscape was accepted by the Salon. By 1879, he was painting under Pissarro’s guidance and in 1880-83 he exhibited in the annual impressionist exhibitions.

In 1883, he left his job to be a professional painter.

In 1884, the incomeless father of five children, he moved the family to the less expensive city of Rouen. Later that year, Mette returned to Copenhagen with two of the children; he followed her there, took a job and in 1885 had an exhibition which failed totally. He and one son, Clovis, returned to Paris. He showed in the 1886 impressionist exhibition. He spent five months in Brittany, at Pont-Aven, meeting there Bernard and other French and foreign painters.

Back in Paris he kept alive by selling paintings from his collection and studied making ceramic sculptures.

In April 1887, he sailed to Panama, worked as a laborer on the canal and moved on to Martinique, but dysentry and poverty drove him back to Paris.

During February-October 1888, he was at Pont-Aven, where, influenced by Bernard, his art changed dramatically. Vision after the Sermon is a key example. Then he went south to Aries to stay with Van Gogh: they would form the nucleus of an artists’ brotherhood, living cheaply and working together in the warmth of Provence.

After Van Gogh’s breakdown that December, Gauguin returned to Paris.

At the 1889 World’s Fair he was impressed by Japanese and Indonesian art. He was in Brittany between June 1889-February 1890, and between June-November 1890. That winter he became part of the Symbolist circle of writers and painters in Paris. They gave a banquet in his honor in March 1891 and a few days later he left France for Tahiti.

He lived first in and near Papeete. He was ill and in extreme poverty. He attempted to sell his work in France, but failed returned to Paris in August 1893.

His attempt to auction his Tahitian work was disastrous, and that May Gauguin sailed fo Tahiti again.

Ill and broke, he had to spend a month in hospital.

He began his large canvas Where Do We Come From? in December 1897, and in January 1898 attempted suicide.

In the following years, he painted little, partly for lack of materials.

In August 1901, he transferred to La Dominique, Marquesas Islands, where he was able to live better on money came from France.

He died in 1903.

Gauguin’s painting started from the realism of the Barbizon School, became impressionist and then symbolist, giving priority to the imagination and the affective powers of form and color. Paintings done in Martinique show heightened colors but it was a range of primilive influences, including Bernard’s example, that brought the major change: Breton costumes and art, Japanese prints, and what he saw of other exotic arts in Paris. After then, his work sought the quality of folk tales, and the South Seas environment and what he learned of native religion provided him with new material. He wanted his art to address the great questions of life in ways that reflected daydreams and stimulated a meditative response. Yet he never abandoned European ways, and out of this combination of the exotic and the traditional came his powerful appeal to younger artists. The classical tradition echoes on in his work even when his motifs are Tahitian: ‘When do we come from?’ is in composition neoclassical for all its idols, native figures, unnatural colors and vague themes.

Far from ignoring western art, Gauguin’s primitivism was a refreshing contribution to it. He carved reliefs and free-standing objects, and made ceramic sculptures, and some of these relate more directly in primitive artifacts; yet the finest of them, the painted relief lie in ‘Love and You Will be Happy’ owes little to primitive influences but instead almost everything to his ability to sidestep conventional formulae to represent emotional tensions. The bold delineation of figures, the strong, often unnatural colors and his use of decorative patterning, gave his paintings remarkable influence in the art nouveau period and subsequently on Fauvism and expressionism. His writings established him as one who had gone native in a paradise of love and visual riches. His chief impact came with his retrospective at the Salon d’Automne, where a memorial show had been put on a few months after his death.

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