Among the most fabled artists of any era, Gauguin is as renowned for his unconventional life as for his vivid images of exotic locales. Much attention has been focused on his connection to Vincent van Gogh, and their brief but episodic period together in Arles. Gauguin spent much of his childhood in Paris and Peru, and in his youth he sailed around the world with the merchant marine and the military. Returning to Paris, he began a career as a stockbroker, married a Danish woman and fathered five children, whom he held dear, despite his neglectful, peripatetic lifestyle. After the collapse of the French stock market in 1882, he began his profession as painter in earnest, voyaging to remote ports of call in Brittany, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific, notably Tahiti and the rugged island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903 and is buried.
The exhibition reveals that Gauguin was not only an exceptionally gifted artist but that, no matter where he traveled, he absorbed the sights and subjects encountered there into his own unique vision. Throughout his career he was open and responsive to all forms of culture and the visual arts, endeavoring to comprehend the underlying beliefs, customs, and practices they represented. In Brittany he carved and decorated his own wooden shoes, as well as the cupboards in his quarters, with local motifs. Toward the end of his life in the Marquesas he again carved wooden reliefs—and even coconuts—with exotic imagery.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are a group of nine oil paintings from the Metropolitan's collection, including Ia Orana Maria (1891), an iconic image of a Tahitian Madonna and Child, and the serene portrayal of Two Tahitian Women holding flowers from 1899. Two exceptionally important works in his oeuvre—The Yellow Christ (1889) and Spirit of the Dead Watching (Manao tupapau) (1892)—are on loan from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. The Museum of Modern Art has lent several works, including Still Life with Three Puppies (1888) and The Moon and Earth (Hina Tefatou) of 1893, which Gauguin presented to fellow artist, Edgar Degas. Paintings from private collections include The Wave (1888), Young Man with a Flower (1891), and Morning (Te Poipoi) (1892), as well as a fine group of landscapes and still lifes, and an engaging self-portrait.
Works on paper in the exhibition include the Metropolitan's Tahitians, a charcoal study of a beautiful young woman's face that conveys Gauguin's deep appreciation for exotic peoples. His pastel, Martinique Women with Mangoes (Private collection; ca. 1887), is one of his earliest portrayals of native islanders, whom he admired for being unspoiled by civilization. An extensive selection of Gauguin's prints are also on view, including a complete series of zincographs on canary yellow paper that he showed in Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1889, and the suite of woodcuts that he carved in a crude and primitive style to illustrate the largely fictional journal of his first trip to Tahiti, Noa Noa.
Throughout his career Gauguin experimented with and explored a wide variety of media and the exhibition features superb examples of sculpted marble, wood, and earthenware. Among the ceramics on view are unpublished works, such as the stoneware Vessel Decorated with Goats and a Girl from Martinique (Private collection; ca. 1887–89). Wood carvings are also featured, including a walking stick entwined with a serpent, a panel from the artist's tropical open-air dining room, inscribed Te Fare Amu (House for Eating), and an unusual double coconut from the Marquesas.