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Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a leading Post-Impressionist painter. His bold experimentation with colouring 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 exponent of wood engraving and woodcuts as art forms.


Paul Gauguin, 1891, unknown photographer

Young life

Paul Gauguin was born in Parismarker, Francemarker to journalist Clovis Gauguin and half-Peruvianmarker Aline Maria Chazal, the daughter of proto-socialist leader Flora Tristan. In 1851 the family left Paris for Perumarker, motivated by the political climate of the period. Clovis died on the voyage, leaving three-year old Paul, his mother and his sister to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima, Perumarker with Paul's uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Paul in his art.

At the age of seven, Paul and his family returned to France. They moved to Orléansmarker, France to live with his grandfather. He soon learned French and excelled in his studies. At seventeen, Gauguin signed on as a pilot's assistant in the merchant marine to fulfill his required military service. Three years later, he joined the navy where he stayed for two years. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. In 1873, he married a Danishmarker woman, Mette Sophie Gad. Over the next ten years, they had five children.

Early art career

Gauguin had been interested in art since his childhood. In his free time, he began painting. He also visited galleries frequently and purchased work by emerging artists. Gauguin formed a friendship with artist Camille Pissarro, who introduced him to various other artists. As he progressed in his art, Gauguin rented a studio, and showed paintings in Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882. Over two summer holidays, he painted with Camille Pissarro and occasionally Paul Cézanne.

By 1884 Gauguin had moved with his family to Copenhagenmarker, where he pursued a business career as a stockbroker. Driven to paint full-time, he returned to Paris in 1885, leaving his family in Denmarkmarker. Without adequate subsistence, his wife (Mette Sophie Gadd) and their five children returned to her family. Gauguin outlived two of his children.

In 1887, after visiting Panamamarker, he spent several months near Saint Pierremarker in Martiniquemarker, in the company of his friend the artist Charles Laval. At first, the 'negro hut' in which they lived suited him and he enjoyed watching people in their daily activities. However, the weather in the summer was hot and the hut leaked in the rain. He also suffered dysentery and marsh fever. While in Martinique, he produced between ten and twenty works (twelve being the most common estimate). While in Martinique, Gauguin traveled widely there and apparently came into contact with the small community of Indian immigrants, a contact that would later influence his art through the incorporation of Indian symbols. Gauguin, along with Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Emile Schuffenecker and many others frequently visited the artist colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. By the bold use of pure color and Symbolist choice of subject matter the group is now considered a Pont-Aven School.

Influences: European, African and Asian art

Like his friend Vincent van Gogh, with whom in 1888 he spent nine weeks painting in Arlesmarker, Paul Gauguin experienced bouts of depression and at one time attempted suicide. Disappointed with Impressionism, he felt that traditional European painting had become too imitative and lacked symbolic depth. By contrast, the art of Africa and Asia seemed to him full of mystic symbolism and vigour. There was a vogue in Europe at the time for the art of other cultures, especially that of Japan (Japonism). He was invited to participate in the 1889 exhibition organized by Les XX.

Cloisonnism and Synthetism

Under the influence of folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin evolved towards Cloisonnism, a style given its name by the critic Édouard Dujardin in response to Emile Bernard's cloisonné enamelling 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.

In The Yellow Christ (1889), often cited as a quintessential Cloisonnist work, the image was reduced to areas of pure colour separated by heavy black outlines. In such works Gauguin paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of colour, thereby dispensing with the two most characteristic principles of post-Renaissance painting. His painting later evolved towards Synthetism in which neither form nor colour predominate but each has an equal role.

Tahiti, Polynesia, and death

In 1891, Gauguin, frustrated by lack of recognition at home and financially destitute, sailed to the tropics to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional." (Before this he had made several attempts to find a tropical paradise where he could 'live on fish and fruit' and paint in his increasingly primitive style, including short stays in Martiniquemarker and as a labourer on the Panama Canalmarker construction, however he was dismissed from his job after only two weeks).

Living in Mataiea Village in Tahitimarker, he painted "Fatata te Miti" ("By the Sea"), "Ia Orana Maria" (Ave Maria) and other depictions of Tahitian life. He moved to Punaauiamarker in 1897, where he created the masterpiece painting "Where Do We Come From" and then lived the rest of his life in the Marquesasmarker 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.

In 1903, due to a problem with the church and the government, he was sentenced to three months in prison, and charged a fine. At that time he was being supported by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard He died of syphilis before he could start the prison sentence. His body had been weakened by alcohol and a dissipated life. He was 54 years old.

Gauguin died on May 8, 1903 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Atuonamarker, Hiva ‘Oamarker, Marquesas Islandsmarker, French Polynesiamarker.

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. 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.

Gauguin is also considered a Post-Impressionist painter. His bold, colorful and design oriented paintings significantly influenced Modern art. Gauguin's influence on artists and movements in the early 20th century include Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Derain, Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism, among others. Later he influenced Arthur Frank Mathews and the American Arts and Crafts Movement 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 Gaugin (1956) and an essay, Paul Gaugin: Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas (included in Rewald's Studies in Post-Impressionism, 1986), discusses Gaugin's years in Tahiti, and the struggles of his survival as seen through correspondence with the art dealer Vollard and others.

Gauguin and Van Gogh

Gauguin's relationship with Van Gogh was rocky. Gauguin had shown an early interest in Impressionism, and the two shared bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies. In 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks together, painting in the latter's Yellow House in Arlesmarker. During this time, Gauguin became increasingly disillusioned with Impressionism, and the two quarrelled.


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 Museummarker and the Hermitagemarker. Gauguin paintings are rarely offered for sale; their price may be as high as $39.2 million US dollars.

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. Picasso's friend the Spanish artist and collector Ignacio Zuloaga a friend of Emile Bernard as well, was also influenced by Gauguin.

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 lead directly to Les Demoiselles D'Avignon in 1907.

According to Gauguin biographer David Sweetman, Picasso as early as 1902 became an aficionado 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 ouevre 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. 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.

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."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'Orsaymarker 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.

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 Atuonamarker in the Marquesas Islandsmarker.

Paul Gauguin's life inspired Somerset Maugham to write The Moon and Sixpence. It 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. Mario Vargas Llosa has also based his 2003 novel The Way to Paradise on Gauguin's life.

Paul Gauguin is referred to in Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Calvin is seen walking past his mother, shouting "Paul Gauguin once said, 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?'" Then, a couple of panels over, Calvin returns and asks, "Who the heck is Paul Gauguin anyway?"

Gauguin has been sainted by the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a modern revival of Gnosticism.

List of paintings by Paul Gauguin


Image:Paul Gauguin 097.jpg|Portrait of Madame Gauguin, c. (1880-1881)Image:Paul Gauguin 060.jpg|Garden in Vaugirard, or the Painter's Family in the Garden in Rue Carcel, (1881)Image:Gauguin Stillleben mit Fruchtschale und Zitronen.jpg|Still-Life with Fruit and Lemons, c. (1880's)Image:Gauguin.swineherd.750pix.jpg|The Swineherd, Brittany, (1888)Image:Paul Gauguin 085.jpg|Les Alyscamps, (1888)Image:Paul Gauguin 137.jpg|Vision After the Sermon (Jacobs fight with the angel), (1888)Image:Paul Gauguin 072.jpg|Night Café at Arles, (Mme Ginoux), (1888)Image:Paul Gauguin 121.jpg|Still-Life with Japanese Woodcut, (1889)Image:Paul Gauguin 056.jpg|Tahitian Women on the Beach, (1891)Image:Paul Gauguin 040.jpg|Woman with a Flower, (1891)Image:Paul Gauguin 031.jpg|The Moon and the Earth (Hina tefatou), (1893)Image:Paul Gauguin 004.jpg|Annah, the Javanerin, (1893)Image:Paul Gauguin 039.jpg|Watermill in Pont-Aven, (1894)Image:Paul Gauguin 044.jpg|The Midday Nap, (1894)Image:Paul Gauguin 090.jpg|Maternity, (1899)Image:Paul Gauguin - Deux Tahitiennes.jpg|Two Tahitian Women, (1899), oil on canvas,Metropolitan Museum of ArtmarkerImage:Paul Gauguin 023.jpg|Cruel Tales (Exotic Saying), (1902)Image:Paul Gauguin 038.jpg|The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa , (1902)Image:Paul Gauguin 106.jpg|Riders on the Beach, (1902)Image:Paul Gauguin 079.jpg|Landscape on La Dominique (Hiva OAU), (1903)


Image:Paul Gauguin 125.jpg|Self-portrait, (1889), National Gallery of Artmarker, Washington, DCmarkerImage:Gauguin portrait 1889.JPG|Self-portrait, (1889-1890)Image:Paul Gauguin 111.jpg|Self-portrait, (1893)Image:Paul Gauguin 110.jpg|Self-portrait, (1896)

See also

Further reading and sources

  • Danielsson, Bengt, Gaugin in the South Seas, New York, Doubleday and Company, 1966.
  • Mathews, Nancy Mowll, Paul Gauguin, an erotic life, Yale Univ. Press 2001
  • John Rewald, History of Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin, 1956; revised edition: Secker & Warburg, London 1978
  • John Rewald Studies in Post-Impressionism, published by Harry N. Abrams Inc. 1986
  • John Rewald, History of Impressionism, 1946
  • John Rewald, Camille Pissarro: Lettres à son fils Lucien Pissarro, 1943
  • Paul Gauguin, with Charles Morice Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin, 1901
  • Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals, trans. (1923) Van Wyck Brooks [Dover, 1997, ISBN 0-486-29441-2
  • Richardson, John. A Life Of Picasso, The Cubist Rebel 1907-1916. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. ISBN 978-0-307-26665-1
  • Sweetman, David. Paul Gauguin, A life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN 0-684-80941-9


  1. Prints by Paul Gauguin, ArtServe: Australian National University
  2. Woodcut and Wood Engraving, The Free Dictionary
  3. Philip Vickers, "Martinique in Gauguin's Footsteps", Contemporary Review, June 1, 1997.
  4. 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
  5. Sweetman, 563
  6. Richardson 1991, 461
  7. Sweetman, 562-563
  8. Richardson 1991, 459

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