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Gauguin, Paul

Paul Gauguin

Born: June 7, 1848
Paris, France
Died: May 8, 1903
Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

French artist, painter, and sculptor

The French painter and sculptor Paul Gauguin sought exotic environments, first in France and later in Tahiti. He frequently combined the people and objects in his paintings in novel ways, bringing to mind a mysterious, personal world in the process.

Early life

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France, on June 7, 1848, to a French father, a journalist from Orléans, and a mother of Spanish Peruvian descent. When Paul was three his parents sailed for Lima, Peru, after the victory of Louis Napoleon (17691821). His father died during the trip. Gauguin and his mother remained in Lima for four years. There the young Gauguin lived a comfortable life. Gauguin then returned to Orléans, and eventually found his way back to Paris. Next he attended a seminary (a school for religious studies). At the age of seventeen he enlisted in the merchant marine (people who work on commercial ships). In 1870 Gauguin began a career as a stockbroker (a person who buys and sells shares of companies) and remained in this profession for twelve years. He married a Danish girl, Mette Sophia Gad, and seemed destined for a comfortable middle-class existence.

Beginnings as an artist

Gauguin's hobby was painting, which he pursued enthusiastically. The Salon of 1876 accepted one of his pictures, and he started a collection of works by impressionist painters. The impressionists were a group of painters who concentrated on the general impression produced by a scene or object. They used unmixed primary colors and small strokes to simulate actual reflected light. As time went on, Gauguin's desire to paint became ever stronger. In 1883 Gauguin, now thirty-five, decided to give up business and devote himself entirely to painting. His wife took their five children to live with her parents in Copenhagen, Denmark. Gauguin followed her, but he soon returned with his eldest son, Clovis, to Paris. There 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 the Brittany region of northwestern France. He 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 and gathered about him a group of painters. Gauguin preached and practiced a style he called synthetism, which involved pure color patterns, strong, expressive outlines, and flat planes. The painters admired the local people for their simple lives and deep religious faith. They felt these qualities reflected a truth about humanity's basic nature, which was not reflected in the sophisticated world of Paris.

Pre-Tahitian paintings

Among Gauguin's masterpieces of this period are Vision after the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) and the Yellow Christ (1889). In both paintings Breton (residents of Brittany) peasants (farm laborers) are strong elements. In both paintings one sees Gauguin's usual bright colors and simplified shapes, which he treated as flat silhouettes. These paintings also show his use of symbolism (using one thing to represent another). Objects and events are taken out of their normal historical contexts.

In Vision after the Sermon, Breton women observe Jacob wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be an angel. This is an episode described in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Gauguin is saying that the faith of these women enabled them to see miraculous events of the past as vividly as if they were occurring before them. In the Yellow Christ Gauguin used a yellow, wooden statue from a church near Pont-Aven as his model. He depicts Breton women as if they were in the presence of the actual death of Jesus Christ.

In October 1888 Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (18531890) invited Gauguin to join him at Arles, France. Gauguin was a proud, arrogant, sarcastic, and sophisticated person. Van Gogh was open and strongly needed human companionship. They did not get along and Gauguin returned to Paris. There he resumed his bohemian (nontraditional and artistic) existence until 1891, when he left France and the Western (characterized by European and American ideals) civilization he had come to dislike and went to Tahiti.

Tahiti

Gauguin embodied the dissatisfaction with bourgeois (middle-class) Parisian existence felt by several postimpressionist painters. He achieved what was perhaps the most extreme break with that society when he left Europe for a non-Western culture. When Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, he did not settle in the capital, Papeete, because Europeans lived there. Instead, he lived with the natives some twenty-five miles away. He perceived Tahiti as a land of beautiful and strong people, who were unspoiled by Western civilization. He enjoyed the bright, warm colors there.

Gauguin became ill and returned to France in August 1893. There he found that he had inherited a small sum of money from an uncle. In Paris he lived with flair. An exhibition of his Tahitian work in November was not successful financially. In early 1894 he went to Denmark and then to Brittany.

Tahitian paintings

Gauguin's Tahitian paintings celebrate the lushness and mysterious splendor of his new environment. At the same time they are seldom pictures of actual Tahitian life. They contain combinations of objects and persons taken out of their normal settings, as did 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 poses of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child with attendant saints or worshiping angels. In Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898) Tahitian natives are portrayed in unusual and probably preplanned meditative poses with a foreboding (giving a warning) primitive idol.

Second trip to Tahiti

In 1895 an unsuccessful auction of Gauguin's paintings was held. He sailed for Tahiti that spring. He once again settled among the natives. His health grew poorer. An ankle he had broken in Brittany did not heal properly, and he suffered from strokes. The government authorities, for whom he showed contempt, harassed him. However, he had to depend on them for menial jobs (work that is beneath a person's skills) in order to support himself. In 1901 he moved to the Marquesas Islands. He died there, alone, of a stroke on May 8, 1903.

Gauguin is regarded today as a highly influential founder of modern art. He focused on color and line, and often created a profound sense of mystery in his work. His unusual combinations of objects and people can be seen as forerunners of the surrealist (using fantastic imagery) art of the 1920s and later.

For More Information

Becker, Christoph. Paul Gauguin: A Journey to Tahiti. London: Prestel, 2001.

Cachin, François. Gauguin: The Quest for Paradise. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1992.

Goldwater, Robert. Paul Gauguin. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1957.

Sweetman, David. Paul Gauguin: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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Paul Gauguin

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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

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). □

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Gauguin, Paul

Paul Gauguin (pôl gōgăN´), 1848–1903, French painter and woodcut artist, b. Paris; son of a journalist and a French-Peruvian mother.

Early Life

Gauguin was first a sailor, then a successful stockbroker in Paris. In 1874 he began to paint on weekends. By the age of 35, with the encouragement of Camille Pissarro, he devoted himself completely to his art, having given up his position and separated (1885) from his wife and five children. Allying himself with the Impressionists, he exhibited with them from 1879 to 1886. The next year he sailed for Panama and Martinique. In protest against the "disease" of civilization, he determined to live primitively, but illness forced him to return to France. The next years were spent in Paris and Brittany, with a brief but tragic stay with Van Gogh at Arles.

Later Life and Art

In 1888, Gauguin and Émile Bernard proposed a synthetist theory of art, emphasizing the use of flat planes and bright, nonnaturalistic color in conjunction with symbolic or primitive subjects. The Yellow Christ (Albright-Knox Art Gall., Buffalo) is characteristic of this period. Gauguin continued to search for a greater sense of spirituality and a greater sexual freedom than could be found in late 19th-century Europe, and in 1891, after selling 30 canvases, he used the proceeds to sail to Tahiti. There he spent two years living poorly, using Tahitian themes to paint some of his finest pictures, and writing Noa Noa (tr. 1947), an autobiographical novel set in Tahiti. He also created a group of carved wooden sculptures and superb woodcut prints depicting Tahitian subjects as well as lithographs and ceramics. In 1893 he returned to France, collected a legacy, and exhibited his work, rousing some interest but making very little money. Disheartened and sick from syphilis, which had afflicted him for many years, he again set out for the South Seas in 1895. There his last years were spent in poverty, despair, and physical suffering. In 1897 he attempted suicide and failed, living to paint for five more years. He died on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. Islands.

Gauguin's Style and Impact on Modern Art

Today Gauguin is recognized as a highly influential founding father of modern art. He rejected the tradition of western naturalism, using nature as a starting point from which to abstract figures and symbols. He stressed linear patterns and remarkable color harmonies, imbuing his paintings with a profound sense of mystery. He revived the art of woodcutting with his free and daring knife work and his expressive, irregular shapes and strong contrasts. He produced some fine lithographs and a number of pottery pieces.

There are major examples of Gauguin's work in the United States, including The Day of the God (Art Inst., Chicago), Ia Orana Maria (1891; Metropolitan Mus.), By the Sea (1892; National Gall. of Art, Washington, D.C.), and his masterpiece Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897; Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston). Somerset Maugham's Moon and Sixpence (1919), based loosely on the life of Gauguin, did much to promote the Gauguin legend that arose shortly after his death.

See his letters ed. by M. Malingue (tr. 1949); his intimate journals tr. by V. W. Brooks (1958); P. Gauguin, My Father, Paul Gauguin (tr. 1937); D. Sweetman, Paul Gauguin: A Complete Life (1995); M. M. Mathews, Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life (2001); D. Wildenstein, Gauguin: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings (2 vol., 2002); studies by R. J. Goldwater (1957), B. Danielsson (tr. 1965), W. Andersen (1971), A. Juszczak et al. (2009), and B. Thomson, ed (2010).

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Gauguin, (Eugène Henri) Paul

Gauguin, (Eugène Henri) Paul (1848–1903) French painter, one of the greatest artists of post-impressionism. In his early career, Gauguin exhibited (1881–86) with the impressionists in Paris. The Vision After the Sermon (1888) is a key work in Gauguin's break with the naturalism of impressionism. His belief that form and pattern should represent mental images influenced symbolism. Gauguin developed his own ‘synthetist’ style of expressionism characterized by bold contours and large areas of unmodulated colour. Inspired by ‘primitive’ art, he left France for Tahiti in 1891. The late works, often of South Sea islanders, convey a sense of mystery and myth. They include Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (1897) and Faa Iheihe (1898).

http://www.hermitagemuseum.org; http://www.nga.gov; http://www.metmuseum.org

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