A Look at the Life of Paul Gauguin Through His Artwork
by Cathy Locke
“Self-Portrait,” (1889), oil on canvas, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Known as much for his eccentric personality as his art, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born to be an artist. In 1903, people crowded into a small gallery to see his latest work, while the artist himself lay buried in a remote Catholic cemetery in the tiny town of Atuona. Today we are left with the mystique of a man who has been called both crazy and brave, a man who lost his family and traveled to the ends of the earth for his art. In this article we look at pivotal moments in his life through his artwork.
“Working the Land,” (1873), oil on canvas, Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge), Cambridge, United Kingdom
Gauguin began traveling at the age of two months when the family set sail from France for Peru. His father died before they arrived, leaving his Peruvian mother, Aline Marie Chazal Tristán (1825-1867), to raise him. The small family moved in with Gauguin’s great-uncle, Don Pío de Tristán Moscoso, in Lima, Peru. He spent the next eight years surrounded by his mother’s beloved collection of Incan artwork. From an early age, Gauguin became influenced by their brightly colored textiles and geometric patterns, as well as the pottery of disproportionate human figures and gods who symbolized various forms of mysticism. As Gauguin began to develop his own voice as an artist, we see these influences. One could say it was fated that in 1886 Gauguin would meet Émile Bernard (1868-1941), who introduced him to synthetism – a style of art that emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns. Synthetism was one of the new styles of art that led to the birth of post-impressionist art. Gauguin became part of a group of artists who gathered in Pont-Aven, France, whose aim was to create art that combined (or synthesized) the subject matter with the artist’s feelings about the subject and the aesthetic concerns of line, color and form.
(left) Marble bust of Émile (1877-78), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and (right) Mette Gauguin, (1877-78), The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
In 1861, Aline moved to Paris, where she worked as a seamstress and befriended the Arosa family. Gustave Arosa (1818-1883), a wealthy Spaniard, became Aline’s sugar daddy and Gauguin’s legal guardian in 1865, the year before she died. Arosa collected Peruvian art, and even began collecting works by newer artists such as Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). In 1871, at the age of twenty-three, Arosa set Gauguin up as a stockbroker in Paris, where he became a successful businessman until the great Paris Bourse crash of 1882. Late in the year of 1873, Gauguin married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850-1920); a year later their son Émile (1874-1955) was born. During this period, Gauguin was painting and drawing in his spare time for pleasure. In 1877, the family moved into an apartment owned by Paul Bouillot, a skilled marble sculptor. Under Bouillot’s guidance, Gauguin sculpted busts in marble of his wife and son. Although there is some disagreement as to whether the bust of Mette was executed solely by Gauguin or if Bouillot lent a hand, there is no doubt that the bust of Émile was cut by Gauguin’s own hand.
“Suzanne Sewing,” (1880), the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Collection, Copenhagen
By the time their fourth child is born in 1879, Gauguin was an avid collector of the art of the impressionists. In fact, due to his ambitious collecting, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pissarro extended a last-minute invitation to show his amateur work, including his sculpture of Émile, at their fourth exhibition. The experience of exhibiting, plus his formable collection of contemporary art, began fueling Gauguin’s career change. Pissarro became his tutor, and by the fifth impressionist exhibit, Gauguin entered seven paintings of the countryside around Pissarro’s home. By 1880, Gauguin began learning still life painting from Degas and continued working with him on figurative work for six years. In the summer of 1881, Gauguin met Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who became his prophet. By 1885, Cézanne’s influence on Gauguin became so great that he starts working in a symbolist style in order to incorporate more mysticism into his work.
“Portrait of Clovis and Pola Gauguin,” (1885), charcoal and pastel, The Kreeger Museum, Washington DC
By the time his last child is born in 1883, Paul (Pola) Rollon (1883-1961), the Paris stock market had crashed, sending France into a decade-long recession. In July of 1884, Mette took the children to Denmark to live with her family. Gauguin’s stock portfolio had collapsed, and he was forced to cash in his life insurance policy at fifty percent of its value. By October he takes a job in Denmark as a traveling salesperson, and in November he joins his family in Copenhagen, bringing with him his art collection. Gauguin was an utter failure as a salesperson because he was selling a product the Danes didn’t need and he couldn’t speak their language. By the spring of 1885, unable to provide for his family, Gauguin had an emotional breakdown. His in-laws berated him for not providing for his children and felt he was wasting time as an artist. Mette and her family forced Gauguin to leave. We only need to look at his paintings of his children to see how much he cared for them; one can only imagine his anguish. How different life would have been for Gauguin had Denmark been a more positive experience. Regarding the pastel above, Portrait of Clovis and Pola Gauguin (1885), “Gauguin requested that his pastels be sent to him in Paris shortly after his arrival there… Gauguin’s wife, with curious disregard for its sentimental value, sold it to her brother-in-law, Edward Brandes, before 1893, when it seems likely it was exhibited in Copenhagen.”1
“Fruit,” (1888), oil on canvas, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
In the spring of 1887, Gauguin and his friend Charles Laval (1861-94) hatched a scheme to get rich quick in Panama. The French were pouring tons of money into building the Panama Canal, and Gauguin was hoping to use his connections with his brother-in-law Juan Uribe, who lived there. Upon arrival, they discovered that Panama was basically a pit, there was no drinking water and streets lined with dead bodies covered with rats. Within a month they set sail for Martinique, where Gauguin got seriously ill with dysentery and malaria. He moved into a hut and lived off the kindness of the natives. Gauguin’s unexpected stay in Martinique ended up being his first step toward primitivism, a style of art that would become the focus of his work for the rest of his life. Gauguin wrote of his new work to Charles Morice (1861-1919), “I had a decisive experience in Martinique. It was only there that I felt like my real self.”2 In his painting, Fruit (1888), dedicated to Charles Laval, we see a definite shift in Gauguin’s style. The young child in the top left corner is far more simplified than his earlier pastel paintings of his children. She has become a symbol for temptation; looking at the beautiful fruit before her, she is contemplating her next move. Gauguin uses the same color in different intensities throughout the canvas, a technique learned from Cézanne. This painting made its way to Russia, originally purchased by the great Russian collector Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and later bought by another great Russian collector, Ivan Morozov (1871-1921).
“Café at Arles,” (1888), oil on canvas, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, formally in the Ivan Morovoz Collection
As early as December 1887, Theo van Gogh (1857-1919) began representing Gauguin as his art dealer. By June of 1888, Theo offered Gauguin monthly payments of one-hundred-and-fifty francs in exchange for one painting a month if he went to live with his brother Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) in Arles. Gauguin arrives in Arles on October 23rd and provides a sense of order to Vincent’s chaotic life. The two set up an ambitious painting schedule despite it being the wettest weather on record. Perhaps because of the rain or because they both loved the brothel, the two ended up painting inside a café were prostitutes frequented. In Gauguin’s Café at Arles (1888), we see a very frank depiction of life. The owner of the café, Madame Ginoux, sits in the foreground staring straight at the viewer, knowing full well the prostitutes are at work in the background. Ginoux is resigned to life and seems aloof, further reinforced by the blue smoke that separates her from the scene in the background. She sums up Gauguin’s own feelings about being in Arles with Vincent. This painting lacks a certain magical quality that his earlier piece Fruit contains. Gauguin didn’t care for Café at Arles, saying “Vincent likes it very much and I like it rather less. Basically, it isn’t my cup of tea and the coarse local color doesn’t suit me.”3 Shown at Les XX in Brussels in 1889, Café at Arles was first purchased by the great French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), who then sold it to Ivan Morozov.
“Aha Oe Feii? (What, Are You Jealous?),” (1892), oil on canvas, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Through his associations with fellow artists in Pont-Aven, Gauguin met French symbolist painter Charles Filiger (1863-1928), who first introduced him to primitive religious artists. Gauguin had never lost his lust for travel and started dreaming about going to Tahiti. He wrote: “My art, which you love, is but a seed – in Tahiti I want to cultivate it for myself, in its primitive and savage state. I need quiet. I care nothing for other people’s notations of glory!” Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti, from 1891 to 1893, he referred to as “Noa Noa,” which means “fragrant” or “perfumed,” and was subsequently the title of his biography. In “Noa Noa,” he chronicles his gradual evolution from a civilized state into a primitive one, which he characterizes as intuitive contact with deep spiritual dimensions of nature. During these years he produced sixty-six paintings. Feelings of self-doubt and loneliness plagued Gauguin. Upon his return he considered giving up painting all together. He painted Aha Oe Feii? (What, Are You Jealous?) (1892) toward the end of his first trip to Tahiti. This painting is a study in red analogous color with the complement of green. Gauguin has flattened form and interlocked all the elements with each other like puzzle pieces. He did a number of preparatory drawings for the seated figure, changing her from kneeling and adjusting the position of her hands. The figure lying down was fitted into the composition later. Despite the interrogatory title, there seems to be no dialogue between the two figures to suggest hostile rivalry. In fact, the seated figure has turned her eye to peer outside the canvas, as if aware of an intruder. Gauguin sent this painting to France along with others in 1892 to be exhibited in Copenhagen. In the exhibition catalogue, Gauguin wanted his paintings listed in Tahitian so that his wife could not understand the titles. It was thought that the title actually refers to the painting’s eventual spectators who might be envious of Gauguin’s tropical lifestyle. An art critic commented: “If he represents jealousy, it is with a fire of pinks and violets where all of nature would seem to participate like a conscious and tacit being.”
“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897), oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In 1895, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, never to return. His literary agent Charles Morice, friend George Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929), and dealer Ambroise Vollard made it possible for Gauguin to enjoy periods of prosperity. Between 1896 and 1897, he created five large, horizontal paintings. There is no documentary evidence that they were conceived as a series; however, it was clear that Gauguin wanted to concentrate his efforts on more important work. After the death of his eldest daughter, Aline, and a year fraught with illness, in December 1897 he poured all his energy into an allegorical diorama describing destiny, the futility of language and death in his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). In a letter to Morice written in 1898, Gauguin describes the painting, saying: “A figure in the center is picking fruit. An idol, both arms mysteriously and rhythmically raised, seems to indicate the Beyond… an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts. She completes the story. At her feet a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claw, represents a futility of words. In spite of changes of tone, the landscape is blue and Veronese green from one end to the other. The naked figures stand out against it in bold orange. I worked day and night that whole month in an incredible fever. It is all done from imagination, straight from the brush, on sackcloth full of knots and wrinkles, so the appearance is terribly rough. It is true that one is not a good judge of one’s own work; nevertheless, I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my previous work, but that I will never do anything better or even like it.”4
“Still Life with Parrots,” (1902), oil on canvas, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Though dying from syphilis and in extreme pain, on September 16, 1901 Gauguin chose to flee even farther from civilization and moved to the village of Atuona on the Polynesian island of Hiva Oa. There he painted one of his last works Still Life with Parrots (1902). The dead fowl and plucked flowers symbolize man’s fleeting life on earth. The bright colors and rich brushstrokes contradict the still-life's gloomy symbolism. On May 8, 1903, Gauguin died from a large dose of morphine he administered to numb the pain. “He was only fifty-four years old when he died, but he had lived his life with such fervor and worked so hard when he was healthy that we much remember the achievements even as we read the litany of the failures and miseries …”5 Paul Gauguin summed up the significance of his work by saying, “I wanted to win the right to be daring... And although my powers were too meagre, the machine was set in motion. The public owes me nothing, my pictures are only relatively good, but the artists who now make use of this freedom do owe me something.”
About the Author
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in the art in Russia of the 19th and 20th centuries and is the editor of Musings-on-Art.org.
Cathy’s artwork: www.cathylocke.com
- Richard Brettell, Francoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory, Charles F. Stuckey; “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988, page 38
- Bradley Collins, “Van Gogh And Gauguin: Electric Arguments and Utopian Dreams,” published by Taylor & Francis, 2019, page 61. “Gauguin, in fact, wrote to Charles Morice, a young poet and eventual collaborator, that “I had a decisive experience in Martinique. It was only there that I felt like my real self…”
- Richard Brettell, Francoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory, Charles F. Stuckey; “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988, page 114
- Richard Brettell, Francoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory, Charles F. Stuckey; “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988, page 393
- Richard Brettell, Francoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory, Charles F. Stuckey; “The Art of Paul Gauguin,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Art Institute of Chicago, 1988, page 389