from Encyclopædia Britannica "Gauguin," (Eugène-Henri-) Paul 

Early years.
Gauguin was the son of a journalist from Orléans and of a mother who was half French and half Peruvian Creole. After Napoleon III's coup d'état, the Gauguin family moved in 1851 to Lima, and four years later Paul and his mother returned to Orléans. At the age of 17 he went to sea and for six years sailed about the world in freighters or men-of-war. In 1871 he joined the stockbroking firm of Bertin in Paris and in 1873 married a young Danish woman, Mette Sophie Gad. His artistic leanings were first aroused by his guardian, Gustave Arosa, whose collection included pictures by Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-François Millet, and by a fellow stockbroker, Émile Schuffenecker, with whom he started painting. Gauguin soon started going to a studio to draw from a model and receive artistic instruction. In 1876 his "Landscape at Viroflay" was accepted for the official annual exhibition, the Salon. He developed a taste for Impressionist painting and between 1876 and 1881 assembled an impressive group of paintings by Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Johan Barthold Jongkind.

Gauguin met Pissarro in 1875-76 and began to work with him, struggling to master the techniques of drawing and painting. In 1880 he was invited to contribute to the fifth Impressionist exhibition, and this invitation was repeated in 1881 and 1882. He spent holidays painting with Pissarro and Cézanne and made visible progress, though his early works are often marred by clumsiness and have drab colouring. Gauguin thus became more and more absorbed by painting, and, in 1883, when the Paris stock exchange crashed and he lost his job, he decided "to paint every day." This was a decision that changed the course of his whole life. He had a wife and four children, but he had no income and no one would buy his paintings. In 1884 Gauguin and his family moved to Copenhagen, where his wife's parents proved unsympathetic, and his marriage broke up. He returned to Paris in 1885, determined to sacrifice everything for his artistic vocation. From then on he lived in penury and discomfort, his health was undermined by hardship, he became an outcast from the society to which he had belonged and could never establish himself in any other, and he came to despise Europe and civilization.

In 1886 the expressive possibilities of colour were revealed to him in the pictures of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and he began to occupy himself with this aspect of painting at Pont-Aven, Brittany. Gauguin then had two decisive experiences: a meeting with van Gogh in Paris (1886) and a journey to Martinique (1887). The one brought him into contact with a passionate personality who had similar pictorial ideas and tried to involve him in working them out communally; this attempt came to a disastrous end after a few weeks at Arles in 1888. The other enabled Gauguin to discover for himself the brilliant colouring and sensuous delights of a tropical landscape and to experience the charm of a primitive community living the "natural" life. Gauguin decided to seek through painting an emotional release, in consequence of which he reacted against Impressionism. The key to his artistic attitude from 1888 on is to be found in these significant phrases:

Primitive art proceeds from the spirit and makes use of nature. The so-called refined art proceeds from sensuality and serves nature. Nature is the servant of the former and the mistress of the latter. She demeans man's spirit by allowing him to adore her. That is the way by which we have tumbled into the abominable error of naturalism.
Break with Impressionism.

Gauguin therefore set out to redeem this error by "a reasoned and frank return to the beginning, that is to say to primitive art." A possible method for arriving at a new form of pictorial representation was suggested to him by Émile Bernard, a young artist well acquainted with stained glass, manuscripts, and folk art. He pointed out that in these arts reality was generally depicted in nonimitative terms and that the pictorial image was made up of areas of pure colour separated by heavy black outlines. Such was the origin of the style known as Cloisonnism, or Synthetism, which attained its most expressive possibilities in such paintings by Gauguin as "The Vision After the Sermon" , "Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin!," and "The Yellow Christ" (1889).

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) - 
Bonjour, monsieur Gauguin, 1889.

"The Yellow Christ" (1889)


When Gauguin broke with his Impressionistic past, he gave up using lines and colours to fool the eye into accepting the flat painted image as a re-creation of an actual scene and explored instead the capacity of these pictorial means to induce in a spectator a particular feeling. His forms became ideated and his colours suggestive abstractions. Maurice Denis, in Théories (1920), described a small painting executed by Paul Sérusier under Gauguin's direction in 1888; this landscape seemed to have no form as a result of being synthetically represented in violet, vermilion, Veronese green and other pure colours. . . . "How does that tree appear to you?" Gauguin had asked. "It's green isn't it? All right, do it in green, the finest green on your palette. And that shadow? Isn't it blue? Well then, don't be frightened of making it as blue as possible." Thus [writes Denis] was presented to us for the first time, in a paradoxical but unforgettable manner, the fertile conception of a painting as "a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order."

Gauguin indulged in "primitivism" because he could make a more easily intelligible image; his simple colour harmonies intensified this image; and, because he wanted his pictures to be pleasing to the eye, he aimed at a decorative effect. His purpose in all this was to express pictorially an "idea." It was as a result of this that he was acclaimed as a leading painter of the Symbolist movement. Gauguin's whole work is a protest against the soul-destroying materialism of bourgeois civilization. "Civilization that makes you suffer. Barbarism which is to me rejuvenation," he wrote (1891) to the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. So Gauguin installed himself in Brittany (Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, 1889-90, 1894), Tahiti (1891-93, 1895-1901), and the Marquesas Islands (1901-03), where he could paint scenes of "natural" men and women.

Before 1891, Gauguin tended to flatten things deliberately, and his effect was often strained, but throughout the 1890s his primitivism became less aggressive as the influences of J.-A.-D. Ingres and Puvis de Chavannes led to increasingly rounded and modeled forms and a more sinuous line. This process can be followed in works such as "Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (1892; "When Shall We Be Married?"), "Nave Nave Mahana" (1896; "Holiday"), and "Golden Bodies" (1901). Simultaneously, Gauguin's images became more luxuriant and more naturally poetic as he developed his marvellously orchestrated tonal harmonies. His chief Tahitian work--"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"--is an immense canvas painted in 1897-98. This is the consummate expression of much that he had painted in the previous six years, and the aura of dreamlike, poetic inconsequence which surrounds this semiphilosophical allegory of primitive life is most powerful.

From 1899 on, Gauguin became increasingly ill and was continually in pain; he was also involved in frequent rows with the governing authorities for siding with the natives against them. Yet despite melancholy, his last pictures still have serenity and hope.

In 1889-90 a group of young followers had gathered round him at Pont-Aven, including Sérusier, Charles Filiger, and Denis, who transmitted Gauguin's ideas to Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch owed much to Gauguin, as did the painters of the Fauve group--Henri Matisse in particular--who profited from his use of colour. Gauguin's primitivism and stylistic simplifications greatly affected the young Pablo Picasso and led to the aesthetic appreciation of black African art and hence to the evolution of Cubism. In Germany, too, Gauguin's influence was strong.

Gauguin was unique in his ability to hold a mysterious balance between idea, perception, and visual image. His pictures make their effect visually, not as a result of literary overtones. He was a great stylistic innovator, and, when he rejected the conception of a picture as a mirror image of an actual scene and turned from an empirical to a conceptual method of pictorial representation, his influence was wide and long-ranging.


Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Paul Gauguin,  Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers 1888
Oil on canvas 28 3/4 x 36 1/2 in. Private collection
Form: This oil on canvas painting exhibits intense, saturated, non-local colors.  Gauguin’s paint quality is spotty and thin and in general his brushstrokes are not as thought out or visible as Van Gogh's.  Gauguin’s work is not really about an illusionistic tradition.  The forms are often very flat and almost feel as if they are forms cut out of colored paper.  Gauguin doesn't concern himself much with chiaroscuro, value or perspective in most of his paintings.

Iconography: Gauguin was a friend of Van Gogh, and the two often painted each other. This paining is showing Van Gogh in the process of creating the work for which he is most famous for, Sunflowers, and shows him with his characteristic bright red beard. 

Context: Gauguin was married and had five children, he became unemployed when the bank he was working for went through some financial difficulties. Free to pursue his dream of painting full time he moved to Arles, where the living was cheaper, and there struck up a friendship with Van Gogh. He also went to Denmark, but then disappointed at not being able to sell his paintings, came back to France and lived at Pont-Aven, before embarking off to Tahiti.


Paul Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888
Oil on canvas  (28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in) National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

Early Christian/Byzantine, Vienna Genesis Manuscript
Jacob and Angel c525CE
Form: Oil on canvas, red is the primary color used for the ground, instead of the expected green, and everything is pushed forward and crowded into the picture plane.   Space and the illusion of space is basically ignored except for in the size scale relationship of the figures in the foreground compared to the wrestling angel in the background.

Iconography: Gauguin painted this work while living in the small town of Arles. There was a small community of devoutly religious people whom lived there and he was so impressed with their almost fanatical belief that he painted this as a representation of some of the women having a vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob stole his brothers' birthright, and Esau, his brother went out to kill him. Jacob hid out for 20 years, built up great wealth and family, and decided to make it all up to his brother. He sent many gifts to him before he journeyed forth to find him, and while on the road ran into what is interpreted to be an angel. He wrestled with the angel, was wounded in the process, but won, and was renamed Israel. He was given the angels blessing and all turned out okay in the end. It has been speculated, because the Bible does not truly make clear who exactly the person was in the road, that it could be an allegory for Jacob wrestling with his conscience, guilt, or with God. 

Context: If we are to assume that Gauguin was trying to say anything about his respect for these women and their devotion, it could have been that he was feeling guilt for having left his wife and five children behind while he pursued his dream of painting. 


Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (We Hail Thee Mary)
1891 Oil on canvas 44 3/4 x 34 1/2 in.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Form: Oil on canvas, a bit of a departure from the early impressionist style Gauguin had adopted while painting with Van Gogh. There is still much non-local color in the skin tones, and perhaps because of the religious name of the painting, his adopted style is somewhat flat and Byzantine.

Iconography: Gauguin, tired of being a failure in France, eventually moved to Tahiti to live permanently. He became enthralled with the locals, their lifestyle seemed to encompass the bohemian and religious ideals that he had been unable to attain. That is, walking around in states of what he would consider 'undress', the slow pace of the island, and that he was respected as a painter by the locals. He was just as exotic to him as they were to him. Because of his overwhelming adoration for this lifestyle, he began to paint the people around him as religious icons, in this case the Virgin and Child. Interestingly, his paintings sold better in France now that he did not live or paint there.

Context: By now, Gauguin had left his wife and children for good and had very little contact with them.


Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching 1892
Oil on burlap mounted on canvas 28 1/2 x 36 3/8 in. (72.4 x 92.4 cm)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Form: Oil painting with a markedly more subdued palette, and an almost cubist feel to it. Note that he way the girl is tilted off the bed is reminiscent of a Cézanne still life.

Iconography: Gauguin was a scalawag of the highest order. With five children and a wife in France he found himself a thirteen-year-old girl as a lover. This is a portrait he painted of her in their shared bungalow. The story has it that she would wake up screaming from nightmares, knowing that her relationship with Gauguin was wrong, and pronounce that the spirits of her dead ancestors were watching them as they slept and disapproved greatly. This painting also follows in the tradition of French artists like Ingres and Manet, where the painting is all about the male gaze and the naked female form. It also recalls the idea of Orientalism, 'exotic' things and people in 'exotic' places.

Context: Though Gauguin may have decided to adopt the island life, he could not seem to leave behind his Eurocentrism and style of panting. He may have felt that he was being terribly creative, but in truth he was merely recycling the same themes and settings that have been passed down through all European Art Academies.