The multifaceted artist Paul Gauguin was born in June 1848 in Paris, France, and was originally named Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin. Not only was he an exceptional painter, but he was also dedicated to the art of sculpting, ceramics, printmaking, and even writing. Although Gauguin is known for being one of the greatest artists in modern history, he did not begin his career as an artist. He began serving in the military and then the Navy. When he decided to become a painter, he was already a successful stockbroker. Gauguin is known until this day for being a Post-Impressionist trailblazer, working with color in an impactful and personal way, painting simplified human figures, and depicting Tahitian culture.
The French painter was born on June 7, 1848, in Paris. His father was a liberal journalist named Clovis Gauguin. Clovis was 34 years old when his son was born and came from the region of Órleans, where the Gauguin family resided. Aline Maria Chazal Tristán, Gauguin's mother, portrayed in the 1889 painting called Portrait of Aline Gauguin, was 22 years old at the time. She was the daughter of Flora Tristan, an important feminist and socialist writer of Peruvian descent.
Proposing a synthesis of socialist views with women's rights was something ahead of its time, even during the revolutionary mindset of 19th century France. According to the author Alan Bowness, Gauguin nurtured great admiration for his grandmother and kept copies of her books with him until the end of his life. The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a novel titled The way to Paradise, a double biography of the painter and his grandmother, exploring the similarities and contrasts in their lives.
Two years after Gauguin was born, Clovis and Aline left France as the newspaper that Clovis contributed to was censored by French authorities. In the exact year in which the artist was born, the Spring of the Nations began, a series of worldwide political upheavals. In France, it would result in the end of constitutional monarchy. Afraid of being persecuted, the couple left for Peru, where Aline had relatives, but unfortunately, Clovis passed away after a heart attack on the way to South America.
The Tristan family was highly influential in Peru, as one of Aline's relatives became president of the country in the following years. There, both Paul Gauguin and his sister Marie enjoyed a rich and privileged childhood with many maids and servants. Conflicts in Peru in 1854 made them go back to France when Gauguin was six and was eventually left in Orléans with Guillaume Gauguin, his grandfather.
Gauguin studied in a Catholic boarding school. At 14, he went to Paris to enter a naval preparatory school. After returning to Orléans and concluding his studies, the soon-to-be artist joined the Navy, where he served for two years. In 1871, Gauguin returned to the French capital after serving abroad.
Gustave Arose, a family friend, recommended him to the Paris Bourse, where he worked as a stockbroker. By the age of 23, Gauguin was a successful businessman, a status he maintained for the next 11 years. By the end of the 1870s, the French entrepreneur was making 30,000 francs a year.
Gauguin married Mette Sophie Gad in 1873, with whom he had five children. Influenced by Arosa, who had a considerable collection of artworks, and by Émile Schuffenecker, also a stockbroker, Gauguin started to paint during his free time. Gauguin visited many galleries and eventually entered into the circle of the modernist Parisian painters.
In 1874 he met the Impressionist Camille Pissarro. Pissarro was a significant influence and motivator for Gauguin's interest in painting and in the art world in general. The two of them, along with Paul Cezanne, painted together on holidays. The innovative way of working with the brushstroke and color made a last impression on the novel painter.
He was part of the French Salon in 1876 with the painting Landscape at Viroflay. From this date on, until 1881, Gauguin utilized a considerable amount of his income to also deal with the art market, gathering a collection of works from Cezanne, Pissarro, Édouard Manet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet. In 1880, he participated in the Impressionist's fifth exhibition and continued during the two subsequent years.
The Paris stock market crashed in 1882, affecting many businessmen, especially Gauguin, who found himself losing most of his earnings. He was forced to take a different direction in his career and began painting full-time. While he was happy to dedicate himself fully to painting, those were difficult years for the artist. Along with the stock market crash that led to his career failure, his marriage also fell apart, resulting in his return to Paris in 1885 with his older son, Clovis.
Gauguin found it very difficult to re-insert himself into the art world and suffered to make a living when he arrived. In 1886, the artist exhibited almost 20 paintings at the last Impressionists exhibit, the Salon des Refusés. Although Gauguin worked with other Impressionists, he was not part of the group, nor did his paintings have an Impressionist style. He eventually broke off with Pissarro because of their differences in artistic views, and Pissarro was leaning towards Pointillism.
At that time, the approach to painting by artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac became the norm among the French modernist circles, presenting a so-called scientific approach to the problem of color. Signac's book From Eùgene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899) had the function of laying the theoretical and historical background for Pointillism and Divisionism.
Gauguin wished to go in a different direction than what was being produced in Europe at the time and felt disappointed in the way Impressionists imitated what they saw, finding it necessary to add more symbolic depth to the art. Just as Charles Laval, Émile Schuffenecker, Emile Bernard, and many others, Gauguin traveled to Pont-Aven, a commune in northwestern France, where he created paintings with areas of pure and bold colors, along with Symbolist characteristics.
The group of artists that produced at the French commune became known as the Pont-Aven School, and many sought inspiration in exotic cultures, like the beautiful African masks that came to Europe. This period marked the beginning of the spiritual and artistic endeavor of Gauguin's life and work, embodied in his almost-ethereal figures, his strong and vibrant colors - a very different take on colorism from the more subtle palette of the Impressionists - and his quest for primitivism.
The painter stayed five months, along with Charles Laval, on the Caribbean island of Martinique. This was an intense trip for the French artist, who remained in a hut during this time and described his impressions through correspondence to Mette Sophie Gad. During this time, Gauguin painted from about 10 to 20 works. He felt that this group of artworks was better than what he produced until then.
The island's influence on his production is evident by the depiction of the rural population and his focus on bright and intense colors, beginning to create what became his most famous artworks. After this experience, where he replaced the impressionistic brushstroke with flat areas of color, Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven to continue working among his fellow painters. To categorize this new aesthetic that the Pont-Aven School reached, the painter used the term "Synthetism".
While Gauguin was inspired by the French Impressionists' innovative work, he had no interest in their scientific motivations. Gauguin searched for a transcendental, spiritual, and conceptual dimension. Abandoning shadows and modeling, he thought that all those aspects of his paintings were synthesized in their plane, surface-like quality, and not attempting to represent a third-dimensional sense of depth.
Gauguin found another outcast-like character like himself, someone that also received the Post-Impressionist label, Van Gogh, and they began to communicate through correspondence. They would even exchange self-portraits, finding identification and solace in each other's views upon art and life. In 1888, Gauguin traveled to Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh was anxiously waiting for his arrival. The Dutch painter wished that Gauguin would join him in his studio, the Yellow House. During this period, the art dealer Theo Van Gogh, Vincent's brother, also became Gauguin's manager.
They worked together for around nine weeks. During this short period, both of them created a considerable amount of paintings, instigated by the other. They had the same influence but still thrived for distinctive styles of their own while sharing a sense of an immaterial and sentimental aspect of their artworks. Unfortunately, the two of them had a strong temper and ultimately got into a major argument that led to Van Gogh's meltdown, and they took their separate ways.
Even though Gauguin later accounted that Van Gogh threatened him with a razor, they continued their correspondence, and Gauguin even suggests that they begin a studio in Antwerp. After looking over police records, contemporary art historians concluded that it was Gauguin who cut Van Gogh's ear with a sword. The two friends agreed with the popular story of self-mutilation so that Gauguin wouldn't be charged.
In 1889, annoyed by how Pont-Aven became a touristic place, Gauguin moved to Le Pouldu, a small village. This would be another turn in his work, where the painter worked with religious imagery and fused it with a primitivist treatment, influenced by Japanese engraving. The artist grew distasteful of Western culture and searched for what he envisioned as a more raw, immediate, and pure civilization. He considered both Madagascar and Vietnam but ended up choosing Tahiti.
It was in 1891 that Gauguin took his most significant trip in his life. It was his first time in Tahiti, and he was taken away from the overall aesthetic influences of the area. He registered everything he could with sketches, photographs, prints, and paintings. Woman with a Flower was the first portrait he painted of a local.
This is the moment that Gauguin's work peaks, and finds the identity for which he is known for today. Merging his elaboration of "synthetism", his loose and apparent brushwork, his fascination for the natural landscape, and the mesmerizing work of color, producing masterpieces such as Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Piti Teina aka Two Sisters, and Nave Nave Moe aka Delightful Drowsiness.
He returned to Paris after his first trip to Tahiti. He made a fairly successful exhibition organized by Paul Durand-Ruel. Despite this, Gauguin lost his patronage and had financial problems, some of them included judicial quarrels with his ex-wife Mette Sophie Gad, who had to take care of their five children alone.
The Modern artist passed away in 1903 at 54 years old after taking pain medication because of his many health issues. Paul Gauguin was buried in the Marquesas Islands, where he had lived since 1901.
Gauguin represented an ever questioning spirit, an individual that wanted to go beyond the modernist circles and find his personal voice, style, and aesthetics. Even though he learned and appreciated the Impressionists, and his main medium was oil on canvas, he was restless throughout his life and experimented with other mediums, such as ceramics, woodcuts, and lithography. He favored a more intuitive and expressive approach that contrasted with the propositions of other Post-Impressionists.
The Pont-Aven School emerged having Gauguin at its intellectual and spiritual center. The Nabis group originated exactly from the Pont-Aven School and had important modernist names such as Pierre Bonnard. The nabis took Gauguin's approach and developed their styles, each artist differently, but always emphasizing the colorwork, using styled contours and treating painting as a surface, rejecting three-dimensional effects.
Henri Matisse took influence from Gauguin's vibrant palette and the use of entire unmodulated shapes of pure color, a factor he would develop in a consistent and elegant personal system. On the other hand, Pablo Picasso worked in the same pottery studio as Gauguin did, and even though they didn't cross paths, Picasso was surrounded by his ceramics while creating. The father of Cubism also had a copy of Noa Noa, Gauguin's book, that described his first trip to Tahiti. It's also safe to assume that Gauguin's engagement in primitivism would later reflect on the early Cubist paintings and Picasso's interest in African art.