GAUGUIN, PAUL (1848–1903), French artist renowned for his development of symbolism in painting.
Paul Gauguin traveled the globe under the French flag. In his youth he was a sailor in the merchant marine, traveling from Paris to India to Peru; in his maturity, he was a stockbroker, an insurance executive, a tarpaulin salesman, and then, finally, a professional artist, moving from Paris to Copenhagen to Brittany to Martinique before finally traveling to French Polynesia. In his worldwide reach, he was an instrument of imperial France, seeking out the exotic and carrying with him the banner of la mission civilisatrice (the civilizing mission). Yet in his actual rejection of bourgeois norms of behavior, and in his embrace of one exotic art style and then of another, he was an antagonist of nationalism and imperialism.
Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 but lived the first seven years of his life in Lima, Peru. The artist's parents, Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal, were committed republicans (she was the daughter of the great feminist-socialist, Flora Tristan [1803–1844]) and fled France in anticipation of the coming Empire. Gauguin's early years in Peru, although spent in the confines of family and local elites, nevertheless allowed the adult artist to claim an exotic identity.
After a period of education in Orléans and Paris, Gauguin entered the merchant marines in 1865. Two years later, upon the death of his mother, he came under the influence of his wealthy guardian, Gustave Arosa, a collector of modern French painting, especially the work of Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) and the Barbizon School. By 1874, Gauguin—now married to the Danish Mette Gad and working as a stockbroker—was an amateur painter. He visited the first impressionist exhibition held that year in the former studios of the photographer Felix Nadar (1820–1910), and met Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). By 1878, Gauguin was a professional artist. He exhibited with the impressionists in 1880, and attracted the attention of no less than Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) in 1881 for his unidealized, nude portrait of Suzanne Sewing (1880).
In 1882, Gauguin's fortunes fell. A stock market crash led to the artist's firing from the brokerage firm for which he worked. Seeking an inexpensive place to live as well as the company of fellow artists, Gauguin traveled to Pont Aven, in Brittany, in the summer of 1886. There he developed—partly in collaboration with Emile Bernard (1868–1941)—a style of painting that critics would label "cloisonnism," so called because it recalled medieval, cloisonné enamel. Gauguin's first cloissonnist painting is Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888), a work that was singled out in 1891 by the critic Albert Aurier. In his article "Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin," the young critic heralded the arrival of a new art that paralleled the idealist school of poetry associated with Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891), and Stephane Mallarmé (1842–1898). The non-naturalist colors and the dream-like character of the scene (the Breton women in the foreground imagine the biblical scene visible at right) combine to convey an abstraction far removed from Impressionist norms. After a short but turbulent stay with Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in Arles in late 1888 (ending with the self-mutilation of the younger Dutch painter), Gauguin returned to Brittany. His fortunes, however, could not be reversed, and by 1890 he was resolved to leave the metropolis for the distant colony of Tahiti.
Gauguin departed from Paris without his wife or children in May 1891 in order to establish what he called a "Studio of the Tropics … where material life can be lived without money." There he would occupy a hut, he said, in a state of "primitiveness and savagery." Yet the circumstances of his departure from France and arrival in Papeete were not primitive. His second-class passage was paid by the Colonial Ministry, and he possessed official letters of introduction. At first, he was well received by the Governor of Tahiti, but his hopes to secure lucrative portrait commissions were quickly dashed. Soon thereafter, he retreated to Mataiea, a small town some thirty kilometers to the south, where he rented a little house that faced the bay. There he remained for nearly two years, devoting himself to representing the faces and bodies of native women.
Gauguin's paintings of women constitute the core of his Tahitian work. In Mana'o Tupapa'u
(The Specter Watches Over Her) from 1892, Gauguin painted a young native woman lying on her stomach on a bed, her feet crossed and her face directed at the spectator. She lies on yellow-white sheets shaded in green, blue, and pink; below that is a bedspread or opened pareu with orange blossoms and leaves on an indigo field. Above and to the left is seen an ominous, hooded woman, a tupapa'u or ancestor figure in profile. Though the subject and composition of Mana'o Tupapa'u may be compared with popular and sexist nudes painted by the popular Salon artists Jean-Leon Gerome (1824–1904), Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825–1905), and Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), it also challenges that tradition. It is indebted both to the notorious Olympia of Edouard Manet (1832–1883) and the antique marble Hermaphrodite in the Louvre. That uncanonical Hellenistic sculpture was the subject in 1863 of a poetic homage of the same title by Charles Algernon Swinburne (1837–1909) that helped launch a school of "decadent" poets and artists whose psychologically intense and formally vivid works undermined the established hierarchies of lyric poetry, and helped lead to the Symbolism of Verlaine and Mallarmé. In the summer of 1893, Gauguin returned to France in the hope of renewing ties to his friends and estranged family. He quickly arranged with the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to exhibit his Tahitian works, but was disappointed that only eleven of forty-four works found buyers. The following year, he returned to the Pacific, never to come back to France.
Gauguin's ambitions at this time are summarized in his large Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?, completed in 1897. Here Gauguin jettisoned academic procedures; nearly every figure or group of figures occupies a different pictorial space and time. The picture invokes Byzantine mosaics, the pan-Athenaic frieze from the Parthenon, The Seven Acts of Mercy of Caravaggio (1573–1610) and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859–1891). Its iconography is derived from Tahitian cosmogony, the Book of Genesis, and Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833–1834).
In 1901, Gauguin sailed for Atuona in the Marquesas Islands. There he built and decorated a native-style house—which he called "the House of Pleasure"—just a stone's throw from a police station, a Catholic church, and a Protestant mission. The house no longer exists, but its lintel, doorjambs, and base survive in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris; these are boldly carved in shallow relief and represent a female nude, and a number of heads whose style suggests Marquesan tiki figures.
In the Marquesas, Gauguin invited scandal: he displayed pornographic prints, pursued liaisons with native women, and spread rumors. He was personally flamboyant, wearing a pareu around his waist and carrying a walking stick shaped like a dildo. He wrote letters of protest to administrators in Tahiti and Paris, sometimes deploring police brutality toward native people, and at other times pitching invectives at colonial officials. Although in poor health, he undertook to assist Marquesan men and women in their efforts to resist the forced internment of native children in convent schools.
On 30 May 1903, Joseph Martin, vicar of the Marquesas, issued the following bulletin: "The only recent noteworthy event has been the death of a contemptible individual named Gauguin, a reputed artist, but an enemy of God and everything that is decent." Gauguin had died of syphilis three weeks earlier and was buried in the grounds of Calvary cemetery—represented in the background of The White Horse (1902)—overlooking Atuona. Thus concluded the life of an artist celebrated in the early twenty-first century for his sophistication and independence, and yet derided for his sexism and colonialism. In its almost relentless focus upon the vulnerable, nude bodies of Maohi women, his art conforms to the widespread racism of an age of imperialism; yet in its rejection of Salon tradition and openness to indigenous forms, it represents a rebuke to that very order.
Brettell, Richard, et al. The Art of Paul Gauguin. Washington, D.C., 1988.
Druick, Douglas W., and Peter Kort Zegers, with Britt Salvesen. Van Gogh and Gauguin—The Studio of the South. Chicago, 2001.
Eisenman, Stephen F. Gauguin's Skirt. New York, 1997.
Pollock, Griselda. Avant-Garde Gambits—1888–1893: Gender and the Color of Art History. New York, 1993.
Stephen F. Eisenman
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.
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 (1769–1821). 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.
Among Gauguin's masterpieces of this period are Vision after the Sermon/Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888) and the YellowChrist (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 (1853–1890) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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). □
Gauguin, (Eugène Henri) Paul
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