Paul Gauguin

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Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin 1891.png
Gauguin, c. 1891
Born Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin
(1848-06-07)7 June 1848
Paris, France
Died 8 May 1903(1903-05-08) (aged 54)
Atuona, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
Known for Painting, sculpture, ceramics, engraving
Movement Post-Impressionism, Primitivism

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (French: [øʒɛn ɑ̃ʁi pɔl ɡoɡɛ̃]; 7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a French Post-Impressionist artist who was not well appreciated until after his death. Gauguin was later recognized for his experimental use of color and synthetist style that were distinguishably different from Impressionism. His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gauguin’s art became popular after his death; partially from the efforts of art dealer Ambroise Vollard who organized exhibitions of his work late in his career, as well as assisting in organizing two important posthumous exhibitions in Paris.[1][2] Many of his paintings were in the possession of Russian collector Sergei Shchukin [3] as well as other important collections.

He was an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, print-maker, ceramist, and writer. His bold experimentation with color 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 proponent of wood engraving and woodcuts as art forms.[4][5]


Early life[edit]

Aline Marie Chazal Tristán, La mère de l'artiste ("The Artist's Mother"), 1889, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Gauguin was born in Paris, France, to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the proto-socialist leader Flora Tristan, a feminist precursor whose father was part of an influential Peruvian family. In 1850 [6] the family left Paris for Peru, motivated by the political climate of the period.[citation needed] Clovis died on the voyage, leaving 18-month-old Paul, his mother, and sister, to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul's uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art. It was in Lima that Gauguin encountered his first art. His mother admired Pre-Columbian pottery, collecting Inca pots that some colonists dismissed as barbaric.

One of Gauguin's few early memories of his mother was of her wearing the traditional costume of Lima, one eye peeping from behind her manteau, the mysterious one-eye veil that all women in Lima went out in. [...] He was always drawn to women with a 'traditional' look. This must have been the first of the colourful female costumes that were to haunt his imagination."[7]

At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orléans to live with his grandfather. The Gauguins came originally from the area and were market gardeners and greengrocers: gauguin means "walnut-grower". His father had broken with family tradition to become a journalist in Paris. Gauguin soon learned French, though his first and preferred language remained Peruvian Spanish.

Education and first job[edit]

After attending a couple of local schools, Gauguin was sent to the prestigious Catholic boarding school Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin.[8] He spent three years at the school. At age fourteen, he entered the Loriol Institute in Paris, a naval preparatory school, before returning to Orléans to take his final year at the Lycée Jeanne D'Arc. Gauguin signed on as a pilot's assistant in the merchant marine. Three years later, he joined the French navy in which he served for two years.[9] He was somewhere in the Caribbean when he found out that his mother had died.[10] In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. His mother's very rich boyfriend, Gustave Arosa, got him a job at the Paris Bourse; Gauguin was 23. He became a successful Parisian businessman and remained one for the next 11 years. In 1879 he was earning 30,000 francs a year (about $125,000 in 2008 US dollars) as a stockbroker, and as much again in his dealings in the art market.[11][12] But in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed and the art market contracted. Gauguin's earnings deteriorated sharply and he eventually decided to pursue painting full-time.[13][14]


In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920). Over the next ten years, they had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–1897); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961). By 1884, Gauguin had moved with his family to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he pursued a business career as a tarpaulin salesman. It was not a success: He could not speak Danish, and the Danes did not want French tarpaulins. Mette became the chief breadwinner, giving French lessons to trainee diplomats.[15]

His middle-class family and marriage fell apart after 11 years when Gauguin was driven to paint full-time. He returned to Paris in 1885, after his wife and her family asked him to leave because he had renounced the values they shared.[clarification needed][16][17] Gauguin's last physical contact with them was in 1891, Mette eventually breaking with him decisively in 1894.[18][19]

First paintings[edit]

In 1873, around the same time as he became a stockbroker, Gauguin began painting in his free time. His Parisian life centred on the 9th arrondissement of Paris. Gauguin lived at 21 rue la Bruyère.[citation needed] All around were the cafés frequented by the Impressionists. Gauguin also visited galleries frequently and purchased work by emerging artists. He formed a friendship with Pissarro[20] and visited him on Sundays, to paint in his garden, and Pissarro introduced him to various other artists. In 1877 Gauguin "moved downmarket and across the river to the poorer, newer, urban sprawls" of Vaugirard. Here, on the third floor at 8 rue Carcel, he had the first home in which he had a studio. He showed paintings in Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882 - (earlier a sculpture, of his son Émile, had been the only sculpture in the 4th Impressionist Exhibition of 1879.) Over two summer holidays, he painted with Pissarro and occasionally Paul Cézanne. In 1882, the stock market crashed, and Gauguin decided to become a full-time painter.[20]

Early paintings:

Gauguin, along with Émile Bernard, Charles Laval, Émile 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. Disappointed with Impressionism, Gauguin 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[edit]

Poster of the 1889 Exhibition of Paintings by the Impressionist and Synthetist Group, at Café des Arts, known as the The Volpini Exhibition, 1889.

Under the influence of folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin's work evolved towards Cloisonnism, a style given its name by the critic Édouard Dujardin in response to Émile Bernard's method of painting with flat areas of color and bold outlines, which reminded Dujardin of the Medieval cloisonné enameling 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.[21] In The Yellow Christ (1889), often cited as a quintessential Cloisonnist work, the image was reduced to areas of pure color separated by heavy black outlines. In such works Gauguin paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of color, thereby dispensing with the two most characteristic principles of post-Renaissance painting. His painting later evolved towards Synthetism in which neither form nor color predominate but each has an equal role.


In 1887, after visiting Panama, Gauguin spent several months near Saint Pierre in Martinique, accompanied by his friend the artist Charles Laval. Paul Gauguin spent approximately 6 months on the island of Martinique in June to November 1887. His thoughts and experiences during this time are recorded in his letters to his wife Mette and his artist friend Emile Schuffenecker.[22] He arrived in Martinique by way of Panama where he had found himself broke and without a job. At the time France had a policy of repatriation where if a citizen became broke or stranded on a French colony, the state would pay for the boat ride back. Upon leaving Panama protected by the repatriation policy, Gauguin and Laval decided to get off the boat at the Martinique port of St. Pierre. Scholars are in disagreement if Gauguin intentionally or spontaneously decided to stay on the island. At first, the 'negro hut' in which they lived suited him, and he enjoyed watching people in their daily activities.[23] However, the weather in the summer was hot and the hut leaked in the rain. Gauguin also suffered dysentery and marsh fever. While in Martinique, he produced between 10 and 20 works (12 being the most common estimate), traveled widely and apparently came into contact with a small community of Indian immigrants; a contact that would later influence his art through the incorporation of Indian symbols. During his stay, the writer Lafcadio Hearn was also on the island.[24] His account provides an historical comparison to accompany Gauguin’s images.

Gauguin finished 11 known paintings during his stay in Martinique, many of which seem to be derived from his hut. His letters to Schuffenecker express an excitement about the exotic location and natives represented in his paintings. Gauguin asserted that four of his paintings on the island were better than the rest.[25] The works as a whole are brightly colored, loosely painted, outdoor figural scenes. Even though his time on the island was short, it surely was influential. He recycled some of his figures and sketches in later paintings, like the motif in Among the Mangoes[26] which is replicated on his fans. Rural and indigenous populations remained a popular subject in Gauguin’s work after he left the island.

Martinique works:

Gauguin and Van Gogh[edit]

Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret), 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (F546)

Gauguin's Martinique paintings were exhibited at his color merchant Arsène Poitier's gallery. There they were seen and admired by Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo van Gogh, whose firm Goupil & Cie had dealings with Portier. Theo purchased three of Gauguin's paintings for 900 francs and arranged to have them hung at Goupil's, thus introducing Gauguin to wealthy clients. At the same time Vincent and Gauguin became close friends (on van Gogh's part it amounted to something akin to adulation) and they corresponded together on art, a correspondence that was instrumental in Gauguin formulating his philosophy of art.[27][28] The arrangement with Goupil's continued past Theo's death in January 1891.

Gauguin's relationship with Vincent proved fraught. In 1888, at Theo's instigation, Gauguin and Vincent spent nine weeks painting together at Vincent's Yellow House in Arles. Their relationship deteriorated and eventually Gauguin decided to leave. On the evening of 23 December 1888 according to a much later account of Gauguin's, van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade. Later the same evening, van Gogh cut off all or part of his left ear. He wrapped the severed tissue in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to "keep this object carefully." Van Gogh was hospitalized the following day and Gauguin left Arles.[29] They never saw each other again, but they continued to correspond and in 1890 Gauguin went so far as to propose they form an artist studio in Antwerp.[30] An 1889 sculptural self-portrait Jug in the form of a Head, Self-portrait appears to reference Gauguin's traumatic relationship with van Gogh.

Gauguin later claimed to have been instrumental in influencing van Gogh's development as a painter at Arles. While van Gogh did briefly experiment with Gauguin's theory of painting from the imagination in paintings such as Memory of the Garden at Etten, it did not suit him and he quickly returned to painting from nature.[31][32]

First visit to Tahiti[edit]

By 1890, Gauguin had conceived the project of making Tahiti his next artistic destination. A successful auction of paintings in Paris at the Hôtel Drouot in February 1891, along with other events such a banquet and a benefit concert, provided the necessary funds.[33] The auction had been greatly helped by a flattering review from Octave Mirbeau, courted by Gauguin through Camille Pissarro.[a] After visiting his wife and children in Copenahagen, for what turned out to be the last time, Gauguin set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891, promising to return a rich man and make a fresh start.[34] His avowed intent was to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional".[35][36] Nevertheless he took care to take with him a collection of visual stimuli in the form of photographs, drawings and prints.[37][b]

He spent the first three months in Papeete, the capital of the colony and already much Europeanized. His biographer Belinda Thomson observes that he must have been disappointed in his vision of a primitive idyll. He was unable to afford the pleasure-seeking life-style in Papeete, and an early attempt at a portrait, Suzanne Bambridge (fr), was not well liked.[39] He decided to set up his studio in Mataiea, Papeari, some forty-five kilometres from Papeete, installing himself in a native-style bamboo hut. Here he executed paintings depicting Tahitian life such as Fatata te Miti (By the Sea) and Ia Orana Maria (ca) (Ave Maria), the latter to become his most prized Tahitian painting.[19][c]

Many of his finest paintings date from this period. His first portrait of a Tahitian model is thought to be Vahine no te tiare (ca) (Woman with a Flower). The painting is notable for the care with which it delineates Polynesian features. He sent the painting to his patron George-Daniel de Monfreid, a friend of Schuffenecker who was to become Gauguin's devoted champion in Tahiti, and by late summer 1892 it was hanging at Goupil's gallery in Paris.[40] Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews believes that his encounter with exotic sensuality in Tahiti, so evident in the painting, was by far the most important aspect of his sojourn there.[41]

Gauguin was lent copies of Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout's (fr) 1837 Voyage aux îles du Grand Océan and Edmond de Bovis' (fr) 1855 État de la société tahitienne à l'arrivée des Européens, containing full accounts of Tahiti's forgotten culture and religion. He was fascinated by the accounts of Arioi society and their god 'Oro. Because these accounts contained no illustrations, the Tahitian models in any case long disappeared, he was allowed free exercise of his imagination and executed some twenty paintings and a dozen woodcarvings over the next year. The first of these was Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), representing Oro's terrestrial wife Vairaumati, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. His illustrated notebook of the time Ancien Culte Mahorie (it) is preserved in the Louvre and was published in facsimile form in 1951.[42][43][44]

In all, Gauguin sent nine of his paintings to Monfreid in Paris. These were eventually exhibited in Copehagen in a joint exhibition with the late Vincent van Gogh. Reports that they had been well received (though in fact only two of the Tahitian paintings were sold and his earlier paintings were unfavourably compared with van Gogh's) were sufficiently encouraging for him to contemplate returning with some seventy others he had completed.[45][46] He had in any case largely run out of funds, depending on a state grant for a free passage home. In addition he had experienced some health problems diagnosed as heart problems by the local doctor, which Mathews suggests may have been the early signs of cardiovascular syphilis.[47]

Gauguin later wrote wrote a travelogue (first published 1901) titled Noa Noa (ca), intended as commentary on his paintings and describing his experiences in Tahiti. Modern critics have suggested that the contents of the book were in part fantasized and plagiarized.[48] In it he revealed that he had at this time taken a thirteen-year-old girl as vahine (the Tahitian word for "woman"). This was Tehura, also called Tehamana, who was pregnant by him by the end of summer 1892.[49][50][d] Tehamana was the subject of several of Gauguin's paintings, including Merahi metua no Tehamana and the celebrated Spirit of the Dead Watching, as well as a notable woodcarving Tehura now in the Musée d'Orsay.[52]

Return to France[edit]

Gauguin, c. 1895, playing a harmonium at Alphonse Mucha's studio at rue de la Grande-Chaumière, Paris (Mucha photo)
Paul Gauguin, 1894, Oviri (Sauvage), partially glazed stoneware, 75 x 19 x 27 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. The theme of Oviri is death, savagery, wildness. Oviri stands over a dead she-wolf, while crushing the life out of her cub. As Gauguin wrote to Odilon Redon, it is a matter of "life in death"

In August 1893, Gauguin returned to France where he continued to execute paintings on Tahitian subjects such as Mahana no atua (it) (Day of the God) and Nave nave moe (pl) (Sacred spring, sweet dreams).[53][54] An exhibition at the Durand-Ruel gallery in November 1894 was a moderate success, selling at quite elevated prices eleven of the forty paintings exhibited. He set up an apartment at 6 rue Vercingétorix on the edge of the Montparnasse district frequented by artists, and began to conduct a weekly salon. He affected an exotic persona, dressing in Polynesian costume, and conducted a public affair with a young woman still in her teens, "half Indian, half Malayan", known as Annah the Javanese (ca).[55][56]

Despite the moderate success of his November exhibition, he subsequently lost Durand-Ruel's patronage in circumstances that are not clear. Mathews characterises this as a tragedy for Gauguin's career. Amongst other things he lost the chance of an introduction to the American market.[57] The start of 1894 found him preparing woodcuts using an experimental technique for his proposed travelogue Noa Noa. He returned to Pont-Aven for the summer. The following year he attempted an auction of his paintings in Paris, similar to the one he had held in 1891, but this was not a success. The dealer Ambroise Vollard, however, showed his paintings at his gallery in March 1895, but they unfortunately did not come to terms at that date.[58]

He submitted a large ceramic sculpture he called Oviri he had fired the previous winter to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts 1895 salon opening in April.[59] It was rejected at first, but his old mentor Ernest Chaplet (fr) defended it and insisted it should be included. Gauguin took the opportunity to increase his public exposure by writing an outraged letter on the state of modern ceramics to Le Soir.[60]

By this time it had become clear that he and his wife Mette were irrevocably separated. Although there had been hopes of a reconciliation, they had quickly quarrelled over money matters and neither visited the other. Gauguin initially refused to share any part of a 13,000 franc legacy from his uncle Isidore he had come into shortly after returning. Mette was eventually gifted 1,500 francs, but she was outraged and from that point on kept in contact with him only through Schuffenhecker, doubly galling for Gauguin as his friends thus knew the true extent of his betrayal.[18][19]

Residence in Tahiti[edit]

Jules Agostini's 1896 photograph of Gauguin's house in Punaauia. Note the sculpture of a nude woman.[e]

Gauguin set out for Tahiti again on 28 June 1895. His return is characterised by Thomson as an essentially negative one, his disillusionment with the Paris art scene compounded by two attacks on him in the same issue of Mercure de France;[62][63] one by Emile Bernard, the other by Camille Mauclair. Mathews remarks that his isolation in Paris had become so bitter that he had no choice but to try to reclaim his place in Tahiti society.[64][65]

He arrived in September 1895 and was to spend the next six years living, for the most part, an apparently comfortable life as an artist-colon near, or at times in, Papeete. During this time he was able to support himself with an increasingly steady stream of sales and the support of friends and well-wishers, though there was a period of time 1898-1899 when he felt compelled to take a desk job in Papeete, of which there is not much record. He built a spacious reed and thatch house at Punaauia in an affluent area ten miles east of Papeete, settled by wealthy families, in which he installed a large studio, sparing no expense. Jules Agostini, an acquaintance of Gauguin's and an accomplished amateur photographer, photographed the house in 1896.[66][67][68] Later a sale of land obliged him to build a new one in the same neighbourhood.[69][70]

He maintained a horse and trap, so was in a position to travel daily to Papeete to participate in the social life of the colony should he wish. He subscribed to the Mercure de France (indeed was a shareholder), by then France's foremost critical journal, and kept up an active correspondence with fellow artists, dealers, critics, and patrons in Paris.[71] During his year in Papeete and thereafter, he played an increasing role in local politics, contributing abrasively to a local journal opposed to the colonial government, Les Guêpes (The Wasps), that had recently been formed, and eventually edited his own monthly publication Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (ca) (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later titled simply Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper).[72] A certain amount of artwork and woodcuts from his newspaper survive.[73] In February 1900 he became the editor of Les Guêpes itself, for which he drew a salary, and he continued as editor until he left Tahiti in September 1901. The paper under his editorship was noted for its scurrilous attacks on the governor and officialdom in general, but was not in fact a champion of native causes, although perceived as such nevertheless.[74][75]

For the first year at least he produced no paintings, informing Monfreid that he proposed henceforth to concentrate on sculpture. Few of his wooden carvings from this period survive, most of them collected by Monfreid. Thomson cites Oyez Hui Iesu (Christ on the Cross), a wooden cylinder half a metre tall featuring a curious hybrid of religious motifs. The cylinder may have been inspired by similar symbolic carvings in Brittany, such as at Pleumeur-Bodou, where ancient menhirs have been Christianised by local craftsmen.[76] When he resumed painting, it was to continue his long-standing series of sexually charged nudes in paintings such as Te tamari no atua (Son of God) and O Taiti (Nevermore). Thomson observes a progression in complexity.[77] Mathews notes a return to Christian symbolism that would have endeared him to the colonists of the time, now anxious to preserve what was left of native culture by stressing the universality of religious principles. In these paintings, Gauguin was addressing an audience amongst his fellow colonists in Papeete, not his former avant-garde audience in Paris.[78][79]

His health took a decided turn for the worse and he was hospitalised several times for a variety of ailments. While he was in France, he had his ankle broken in a drunken brawl on a seaside visit to Concarneau.[80] The injury, an open fracture, never healed properly. Now painful and debilitating sores that restricted his movement were erupting up and down his legs. These were treated with arsenic. Gauguin blamed the tropical climate and described the sores as "eczema", but his biographers agree this must have been the progress of syphilis.[47][81][f]

In April 1897 he received word that his favourite daughter Aline had died tragically from pneumonia. This was also the month he learned he had to vacate his house because its land had been sold. He took out a bank loan to build a much more extravagant wooden house with beautiful views of the mountains and sea. But he overextended himself in so doing, and by the end of the year faced the real prospect of his bank foreclosing on him.[83] Failing health and pressing debts brought him to the brink of despair. At the end of the year he completed his monumental Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which he regarded as his masterpiece and final artistic testament (in a letter to Monfreid he explained that he tried to kill himself after finishing it).[84][85][86] The painting was exhibited at Vollard's gallery in November the following year, along with eight thematically related paintings he had completed by July.[87] This was his first major exhibition in Paris since his Durand-Ruel show in 1893 and it was a decided success, critics praising his new serenity. Where do we come from?, however, received mixed reviews and Vollard had difficulty selling it. He eventually sold it in 1901 for 2,500 francs (about $10,000 in year 2000 US dollars) to Gabriel Frizeau (fr), of which Vollard's commission was perhaps as much as 500 francs.

Georges Chaudet, Gauguin's Paris dealer, died in the fall of 1889. Vollard had been buying Gauguin's paintings through Chaudet and now made an agreement with Gauguin directly.[88][89] The agreement provided Gauguin a regular monthly advance of 300 francs against a guaranteed purchase of at least 25 unseen paintings a year at 200 francs each, and in addition Vollard undertook to provide him with his art materials. There were some initial problems on both sides, but Gauguin was finally able to realise his long cherished plan of resettling in the Marquesas Islands in search of a yet more primitive society. He spent his final months in Tahiti living in considerable comfort, as attested by the liberality with which he entertained his friends at that time.[90][91][92]

Gauguin was unable to continue his work in ceramics in the islands for the simple reason that suitable clay was not available.[93] Similarly, without access to a printing press (Le Sourire was hectographed),[94] he was obliged to turn to the monotype process in his graphic work.[95] Surviving examples of these prints are rather rare and command very high prices in the saleroom.[96]

Gaugin's vahine during all this time was Pahura (Paa'ura) a Tai, the daughter of neighbours in Punaauia and aged fourteen and a half when he took her in.[97] She gave him two children, of which a daughter died in infancy. The other, a boy, she raised herself. His descendants still inhabited Tahiti at the time of Mathews' biography. Paa'ura refused to accompany Gauguin to the Marquesas away from her family in Punaauia (earlier she had left him when he took work in Papeete just 10 miles away).[98] When the English writer Willam Somerset Maugham visited her in 1917, she could offer him no useful memory of Gauguin and chided him for visiting her without bringing money from Gauguin's family.[99]

Marquesas Islands[edit]

Door lintel at Maison du Jouir, 1901, Musée d'Orsay
Reconstruction of Gauguin's home Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure) at Atuona.

Gauguin had nurtured his plan of settling in the Marquesas ever since seeing a collection of intricately carved Marquesan bowls and weapons in Papeete during his first months in Tahiti.[100] However, he found a society that, as in Tahiti, had lost its cultural identity. Of all the Pacific island groups, the Marquesas were the most affected by the import of Western diseases (especially tuberculosis).[101] An eighteenth century population of some 80,000 had declined to just 4,000.[102] Catholic missionaries held sway and, in their effort to control drunkeness and promiscuity, obliged all native children to attend missionary schools into their teens. French colonial rule was enforced by a gendarmerie noted for its malevolence and stupidity, while traders, both western and Chinese, exploited the natives appallingly.[103][104]

Gauguin settled in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa, arriving 16 September 1901.[g] This was the administrative capital of the island group, but considerably less developed than Papeete although there was an efficient and regular steamer service between the two. There was a military doctor but no hospital. The doctor was relocated to Papeete the following February and thereafter Gauguin had to rely on the island's two health care workers, the Vietnamese adventurer Nguyen Van Cam, who had settled on the island but had no formal medical training, and the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had studied medicine in addition to theology.[105][106] Both of these were to became close friends.[107]

He bought a plot of land in the center of the town from the Catholic mission, having first ingratiated himself with the local bishop by attending mass regularly. This bishop was Monseigneur Joseph Martin, initially well disposed to Gauguin because he was aware that Gauguin had sided with the Catholic party in Tahiti in his journalism.[108]

Père Paillard (Father Lechery), 1902, National Gallery of Art. Gauguin's lampoon of Bishop Martin.

Gauguin built a sturdy two floor house on his plot, sturdy enough to survive a later cyclone which washed away most other dwellings in the town. He was helped in the task by the two best Marquesan carpenters on the island, one of them called Tioka, tattooed from head to toe in the traditional Marquesan way (a tradition suppressed by the missionaries). Tioka was a deacon in Vernier's congregation and became Gauguin's neighbour after the cyclone, when Gauguin gifted him a corner of his plot. The ground floor was open-air and used for dining and living, while the top floor was used for sleeping and as his studio. The door to the top floor was decorated with a polychrome wood-carved lintel and jambs that still survive. The lintel named the house as Maison du Jouir (i.e. House of Pleasure), while the jambs echoed his earlier 1889 wood-carving Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses (fr) (i.e. Be loving and you will be happy). The walls were decorated with, amongst other things, his prized collection of forty-five pornographic photographs he had purchased in Port Said on his way out from France.[109] In the early days at least, until Gauguin found a vahine, the house drew appreciative crowds in the evenings from the natives, who came to gawp at the pictures and feast and drink half the night away.[110] Needless to say, all this did not endear Gauguin to the bishop, still less when Gauguin erected two sculptures he placed at the foot of his steps lampooning the bishop and a servant reputed to be his mistress,[111] and yet still less when Gauguin attacked the unpopular missionary school system.[112]

State funding for the missionary schools had ceased as a result of the 1901 Associations Bill promulgated throughout the French empire.[101][113][114] The schools continued with difficulty as private institutions, but these difficulties were compounded when Gauguin established that attendance at any given school was only compulsory within a catchment area of some two and a half miles radius. This led to numerous teenage daughters being withdrawn from the schools (Gauguin called this process "rescuing"). He took as vahine one such girl, Vaeoho (also called Marie-Rose), the fourteen-year old daughter of a native couple who lived in an adjoining valley six miles distant.[115] This can scarcely have been a pleasant task for her as Gauguin's sores were by then extremely noxious and required daily dressing.[106] Nevertheless, she lived willingly with him and the following year gave birth to a healthy daughter whose descendants continue to live on the island.[116]

Le Sorcier d'Hiva Oa (Marquesan Man in a Red Cape), 1902, Musée d'art moderne et d'art contemporain de Liège

By November he had settled into his new home with Vaeoho, a cook (Kahui), two other servants (nephews of Tioka), his dog, Pegau (a play on his initials PG), and a cat. The house itself, although in the center of the town, was set amongst trees and secluded from view. The partying ceased and he began a period of productive work, sending twenty canvases to Vollard the following April.[117] He had thought he should find new motifs in the Marquesas, writing to Monfreid:[118][119]

I think in the Marquesas, where it is easy to find models (a thing that is growing more and more difficult in Tahiti), and with new country to explore - with new and more savage subject matter in brief - that I shall do beautiful things. Here my imagination has begun to cool, and then, too, the public has grown so used to Tahiti. The world is so stupid that if one shows it canvases containing new and terrible elements, Tahiti will become comprehensible and charming. My Brittany pictures are now rose-water because of Tahiti; Tahiti will become eau de Cologne because of the Marquesas.

—Paul Gauguin, Letter LII to George Daniel de Monfreid, June 1901

In fact his Marquesas work for the most part can only be distinguished from his Tahiti work by their dates,[120] paintings such as Two Women remaining uncertain in their location.[121] For Anna Szech, what distinguishes them is their repose and melancholy, albeit containing elements of disquiet. Thus, in the second of two versions of Cavaliers sur la Plage (Riders on the Beach) for example, gathering clouds and foamy breakers suggest an impending storm while the two distant figures on grey horses echo similar figures in other paintings that are taken to symbolise death.[118]

Gauguin chose to paint landscapes, still lifes, and figure studies at this time, with an eye to Vollard's clientele, avoiding the primitive and lost paradise themes of his Tahiti paintings.[122] But there is a significant trio of pictures from this last period that suggest deeper concerns. The first two of these are Jeune fille à l'éventail (Young Girl with Fan) and Le Sorcier d'Hiva Oa (Marquesan Man in a Red Cape). The model for Jeune fille was the red-headed Tohotaua, the daughter of a chieftain on a neighbouring island. The portrait appears to have been taken from a photograph that Vernier later sent to Vollard. The model for Le sorcier may have been Haapuani, an accomplished dancer as well a feared magician, who was a close friend of Gauguin's and, according to Danielsson, married to Tohotau.[123] Szech notes that the white color of Tohotau's dress is a symbol of power and death in Polynesian culture, the sitter doing duty for the Maohi culture as a whole, threatened with extinction.[118] Le Sorcier appears to have been conceived at the same time and depicts a long-haired young man wearing an exotic red cape. The androgynous nature of the image has attracted critical attention, giving rise to speculation that Gauguin intended to depict a māhū (i.e. a third gender person) rather than a taua or priest.[124][125][126] The third picture of the trio is the mysterious and beautiful Contes barbares (Primitive Tales) featuring Tohotau again at the right. The left figure is Jacob Meyer de Haan, a painter friend of Gaugin's from their Pont-Aven days who had died a few years previously, while the middle figure is again androgynous, identified by some as Haapuani. The Buddha-like pose and the lotus blossoms suggests to Elizabeth Childs that the picture is a meditation on the perpetual cycle of life and the possibility of rebirth.[122] As these paintings reached Vollard after Gauguin's sudden death, nothing is known about Gauguin's intentions in their execution.

Gauguin spent the rest of his life in the Marquesas, dying suddenly on 8 May 1903 from a suspected heart attack.[127]

His works of that period are full of quasi-religious symbolism and an exoticized view of the inhabitants of Polynesia. In the Marquesas, 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.[32]


Gauguin's grave in Atuona.

In French Polynesia, toward the end of his life, sick and suffering from disfiguring sores on his legs,[128] he got into legal trouble for taking the natives' side against French colonial officers. On 27 March 1903, while living in the Marquesas Islands, he was charged with libeling a gendarme and given three days to prepare his defense. He was fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison. He appealed for a new trial in Papeete.[129] At this time he was very weak and in great pain. He had resorted to morphine again, which earlier he had rejected. He died suddenly on the morning of 8 May 1903 before he could hear the result of his appeal. Earlier, he had sent for his pastor Paul Vernier. They had chatted together and Vernier had left, believing him in a stable condition. However Gauguin's neighbour Tioka found him dead at 11 o'clock, confirming the fact in the traditional Marquesan way by biting his head. By his bedside was an empty bottle of laudanum, which has given rise to speculation that he was the victim of an overdose.[130] Vernier believed he died of a heart attack.[131]

Gauguin was buried in Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa, at 2 p.m. the next day.

The Paul Gauguin Cultural Center at Atuona has a reconstruction of his house, named by him Maison du Jouir (House of Pleasure), a by no means humble dwelling. Thomson notes that an inventory of an auction of his effects (some of which were burned as pornography) revealed a life that was not as impoverished or primitive as he had liked to maintain.[132]

In 2014, forensic examination of four teeth found in a glass jar in a well near Gauguin's house threw into question the conventional belief that Gauguin had suffered from syphilis. DNA examination established that the teeth were almost certainly Gauguin's, but no traces were found of the mercury that was used to treat syphilis at the time, suggesting either that Gauguin did not suffer from syphilis or that he was not being treated for it.[133][134]


Gauguin outlived three of his children; his favorite daughter Aline died of pneumonia, his son Clovis died of a blood infection following a hip operation,[135] and a daughter, whose birth was portrayed in Gauguin's painting of 1896 Te tamari no atua, the child of Gauguin's young Tahitian mistress Pau'ura, died only a few days after her birth on Christmas Day 1896.[136] His son Émile Gauguin worked as a construction engineer in the U.S. and is buried in Lemon Bay Historical Cemetery, in Florida. Another son, Jean René, became a well-known sculptor and a staunch socialist. He died on 21 April 1961 in Copenhagen. Pola (Paul Rollon) became an artist and art critic and wrote a memoir, My Father, Paul Gauguin (1937). Gauguin had several other children by his mistresses: Germaine (born 1891) with Juliette Huais (1866–1955); Émile Marae a Tai (born 1899) with Pau'ura; and a daughter (born 1902) with Mari-Rose. There is some speculation that the Belgian artist Germaine Chardon was Gauguin's daughter. Emile Marae a Tai, illiterate and raised in Tahiti by Pau'ura, was brought to Chicago in 1963 by the French journalist Josette Giraud and was an artist in his own right, his descendants still living in Tahiti as of 2001.[135][137]

Historical significance[edit]

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.[138] 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.[139]

Gauguin is also considered a Post-Impressionist painter. His bold, colorful and design oriented paintings significantly influenced Modern art. Artists and movements in the early 20th century inspired by him 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.

John Rewald, recognized as a foremost authority on late 19th-century art, wrote a series of books about the Post-Impressionist period, including Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956) and an essay, Paul Gauguin: Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas (included in Rewald's Studies in Post-Impressionism, 1986), discusses Gauguin's years in Tahiti, and the struggles of his survival as seen through correspondence with the art dealer Vollard and others.[140]

Influence on Picasso[edit]

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. 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 led directly to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907.[141]

According to Gauguin biographer David Sweetman, Picasso as early as 1902 became a fan 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 oeuvre 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.[142] 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.[143]

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."[144]

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'Orsay 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.[145]


Paul Gauguin, Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892, sold for a record US $300m in 2015.

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 Museum and the Hermitage. Gauguin paintings are rarely offered for sale, their prices reaching tens of millions of US dollars in the saleroom when they are offered. His 1892 Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) became the world's most expensive artwork when its owner, the family of Rudolf Staechelin, sold it privately for US $300m in February 2015. The buyer is believed to be the Qatar Museums.[146]

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 Atuona in the Marquesas Islands.

In 2014 the painting Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien (1889), with an estimated value of between €10m and €30m (£8.3m to £24.8m), which had been stolen in London in 1970, was discovered in Italy. The painting, together with a work by Pierre Bonnard, had been bought by a Fiat employee in 1975, at a railway lost property sale, for 45,000 lira (about £32).[147]


For a comprehensive list of paintings by Gauguin, see List of paintings by Paul Gauguin.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thomson notes that Gauguin was alert to the potential for self-publicity. Camille Pissarro, no admirer of Gauguin, later scathingly observed that Gauguin had set out to "get himself elected ... as a man of genius".[33]
  2. ^ He described his collection in a letter to Odilon Redon as "a whole little world of friends". They included Redon's lithograph La Mort as well as photographs of subjects such as a temple frieze at Borobudur and an Egyptian fresco from an XVIIIth dynasty tomb at Thebes.[38]
  3. ^ Thomson notes that Gauguin offered Ia Orana Maria to the Musée du Luxembourg, who turned it down unceremoniously, "thus confirming and reinforcing Gauguin's hatred of officialdom".[19]
  4. ^ Mathews notes that Gauguin certainly emphasised the youth of the girl for dramatic effect. Nevertheless it is likely Tehamana was in her early teens, young girls at the time being commonly offered as companions to Westerners. There is no further record of Tehamana's baby. Mathews estimates it was probably adopted in keeping with Tahitian custom.[51]
  5. ^ Mathews records (p.230) an anecdote that a Catholic priest asked him to remove a provocative sculpture of a nude woman from his grounds. Not only did Gauguin refuse, but he threatened to sue the priest. In a note (n. 71) Mathews casts doubt on the source of the story because she can't find a record for the priest named as Michel Béchu, but the priest in question would appear to be Léonard Pierre Béchu, originally entered as "Michel" in cathedral records.
  6. ^ There is no direct evidence that Gauguin suffered from syphilis and none that he infected any of his lovers, as is sometimes asserted. Syphilis is not infectious in the tertiary stage Gauguin is assumed to have reached.[82]
  7. ^ Danielsson (1965, p. 235) notes that the day before his boat had put in at Nuku Hiva island, scene of Herman Melville's celebrated Typee some 60 years earlier, championing exactly the sort of primitive society for which Gauguin yearned. However, Gauguin was apparently unaware of Melville's book.

References and sources[edit]

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  7. ^ Gauguin: The Full Story, Waldemar Januszczak.
  8. ^ Gayford pp. 99-100
  9. ^ Mathews p. 14
  10. ^ Mathews p. 18
  11. ^ Thompson, Don (2010). The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 978-0230620599. 
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  13. ^ Thomson p. 27
  14. ^ Mathews pp. 48-9
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  16. ^ Mathews p. 62
  17. ^ Thomson p. 38
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  116. ^ Danielsson pp. 241, 255 pl. 55
  117. ^ Danielsson pp. 241-55
  118. ^ a b c Szech p. 148
  119. ^ Monfreid LII
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  121. ^ "Two Women". Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
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  133. ^ Bailey, Martin. "Gauguin could be cleared of syphilis—by the skin of his teeth". The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 27 February 2014. 
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  141. ^ Miller, Arthur I. (2001). "Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and the Beauty That Causes Havoc". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 June 2010. Les Demoiselles contains vestiges of Cézanne, El Greco, Gauguin and Ingres, among others, with the addition of conceptual aspects of primitive art properly represented with geometry. 
  142. ^ Sweetman, 563
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  144. ^ Sweetman, 562–563.
  145. ^ Richardson 1991, 459.
  146. ^ By Scott Reyburn, Doreen Carvajal, Gauguin Painting Is Said to Fetch $300 Million, The New York Times, 5 February 2015
  147. ^ Lizzy Davies in Rome. "Stolen paintings hung on Italian factory worker's wall for almost 40 years | Art and design". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]