Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

Paul Gauguin styled himself and his art as "savage." Although he began his artistic career with the Impressionists in Paris, during the late 1880s he fled farther and farther from urban civilization in search of an edenic paradise where he could create pure, "primitive" art. Yet his self-imposed exile to the South Seas was not so much an escape from Paris as a bid to become the new leader of the Parisian avant-garde. Gauguin cultivated and inhabited a dual image of himself as, on the one hand, a wolfish wild man and on the other, a sensitive martyr for art. His notoriety helped to promote his astonishing work, which freed color from mimetic representation and distorted form for expressive purposes. Gauguin pioneered the Symbolist art movement in France and set the stage for Fauvism and Expressionism.


Early Career and Training

Gauguin came late to art. There is little in his early life to presage his phenomenal artistic career; however, his peripatetic upbringing established his restless need for voyage to exotic destinations. Descended on his mother's side from Peruvian nobility, he spent his early childhood in Lima. He would later misrepresent his ancestry to portray himself as an Incan savage. Gauguin's nomadic life continued when he joined the merchant marines and visited ports as far flung as India and the Black Sea. By 1873, he was married and settled in Paris as a stockbroker, thanks to his guardian Gustave Arosa, a wealthy Spanish financier in Paris with a formidable collection of modern French painting. Through Arosa, Gauguin developed an amateur interest in art. He met Camille Pissarro at Arosa's home and by 1879 became an unofficial pupil as well as patron of the artist. Pissarro soon invited the ambitious Gauguin to exhibit with the Impressionists.


After the stock market crashed in 1882, Gauguin decided to become a full-time artist. He painted Impressionist landscapes, still lifes, and interiors heavily influenced not only by Pissarro but also by Paul Cézanne, whom he had met through Pissarro. Gauguin adopted and adapted Cézanne's parallel, constructive brushstrokes; he in fact bought several paintings by Cézanne in order to study the brushwork more carefully. Nevertheless, Gauguin's pictures showed a preoccupation with dreams, mystery, and evocative symbols that revealed his own artistic inclinations. He also sculpted, carved wood reliefs and objects, and made ceramics, signaling an interest in three-dimensional decorative objects from the beginning of his career (67.187.45a,b).


Brittany and Beyond

Gauguin's retrogressive form of modernism brought him to Brittany (22.82.2(9)), Panama, and Martinique (22.82.2(4)) in 1886–87 in the hopes of retrieving some lost, uncorrupted past from which art could be renewed. During his second visit to Pont-Aven, Brittany in 1888, his encounter with the artist Émile Bernard resulted in the groundbreaking painting Vision After the Sermon (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh). This work became the clarion call for Symbolist art. Dropping the Cézannist brushstroke, Gauguin used broad, matte fields of stridently non-naturalistic color to express the transcendent visions of Breton peasant women. In October of 1888, Gauguin left Brittany for Arles, where he joined Vincent van Gogh, whose brother Theo was his art dealer. Gauguin encouraged van Gogh to paint as he himself did, from memory and imagination (22.82.2(10)), rather than from motifs in nature. Their collaboration ended abruptly when van Gogh had a mental breakdown and cut off part of his left ear.


Back in Paris, Gauguin was eager to make his new work known to a Parisian public. He helped organize a renegade exhibition of his and his friends' work at a café owned by a Mr. Volpini on the official grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The Volpini exhibition, as it became known, included a suite of ten zincographs printed on dazzling yellow paper; Gauguin came to associate this color with modernity and spirituality after his time with Van Gogh. Gauguin's Volpini suite represented his first foray into printmaking and was meant to be a summary of his work since the last Impressionist exhibition of 1886. However, the zincographs present both reproductions of recent paintings (22.82.2(10)) and evocative translations of paintings that become unique, independent works themselves (22.82.2(4); 22.82.2(9)). Working with black crayon directly on a zinc plate forced Gauguin to simplify his compositions even more than in his paintings and focus on form and tonal contrast as a means of expression.


First Tahitian Trip

The Volpini exhibition was a commercial failure and a dejected Gauguin continued his peregrinations in Brittany, where he painted a series of self-portraits relating himself to Jesus Christ. But the colonial pavilions at the 1889 Exposition Universelle had planted a seed in the artist's mind: to move to an exotic, preindustrial locale and escape his money troubles. He eventually set sail for Tahiti in 1891. His first major Tahitian canvas, Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary), dresses a Christian theme in Polynesian guise (51.112.2). A Tahitian Virgin Mary is worshipped by two other Tahitian women dressed in colorful pareus in a lush, tropical landscape. The composition is based on a photograph that Gauguin had brought with him of a bas-relief in the Javanese temple of Borobudur. Another photograph that Gauguin packed, of Manet's Olympia, inspired the master work from his first Tahitian trip, Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). Gauguin's Tahitian pictures are thus a hybrid of various Western and Eastern sources, creating a new synthetic style that combined decorative abstract patterning with figuration. In The Siesta, to take a further example, Gauguin updates the fête galante genre as a languorous scene of Tahitian women relaxing on a porch in the humid tropical heat (1993.400.3).


After he returned to Paris in 1893, he began creating a book accompanied by woodcuts, entitled Noa Noa (Fragrant), to explain and contextualize the bizarre paintings he had made in Tahiti (37.97). The intentionally crude, richly textured woodcuts reconfigured motifs from his paintings to evoke an atmosphere and a vision of Tahiti as mysterious, erotic, and savage (36.6.2; 36.6.3). Gauguin experimented with various colored papers, inks, and processes such as offset printing to explore different artistic and emotional effects (36.6.4; 36.6.5).


Second Tahitian Trip and Death

With financial success continuing to elude him in France, Gauguin decided to return to Tahiti permanently in 1895. He was suffering from syphilis by this time, yet between hospitalizations, he was able to paint his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). This monumental allegorical painting served as a synthesis or culmination of his art. Afterwards, his Tahitian work became increasingly self-referential; he drew and painted the same figures over and over again, cutting and pasting them in different configurations and settings (1996.418; 49.58.1). For instance, the young women in Two Tahitian Women appear in two other monumental paintings in 1898 and 1899.


Despite the arcadian content of his pictures, Gauguin became disillusioned with the Westernization and colonial corruption of Tahiti. He left in 1901 for the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, perpetually searching for a lost paradise. He died there in 1903, having become a legend for a new generation of artists halfway across the world in Paris.

Cindy Kang
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University