Paul Gauguin
Biography of Post-Impressionist Painter: Pioneer of Synthetism.

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Two Tahitian Women with Red Flowers
(1899) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)


Early Life
Begins Painting Part-Time
Full-Time Artist (1885-91)
Leaves France for Tahiti (1891-93)
Returns to France (1893-95)
Tahiti: Final Period (1895-1903)

NOTE: For analysis of works by Symbolist painters like Paul Gauguin,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Anna The Javanese (1893)
Aita Tamari vahina Judith te Parari.
Private collection (1893).
Notice the vivid colour pigments.

For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.


Gauguin is regarded by many art critics as one of the best artists of all time. A leading French exponent of Post-Impressionism, who was a key influence on the history of art at the beginning of the 20th century, Paul Gauguin strove to express his inner emotions on canvas, largely through the use of colour. Supported by the art-collector Ambroise Vollard, Gauguin's unique style of French painting paved the way for Synthetism and Cloisonism (2-D style works featuring blocks of pure colour with black edging) as well as Primitivism. Influenced initially by French Impressionism, Gauguin is best known for his primitivist expressionistic works, characterized by flat areas of colour, painted when he lived in the South Pacific. Although not particularly appreciated during his lifetime, his Post-Impressionist painting had a huge impact on painters leading up to World War I, and beyond. His most famous expressionist paintings include: The Vision after the Sermon, (1888, National Gallery of Scotland); Brooding Woman (1891, Worcester Art Museum), The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch (1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY), Where Do We Come From, What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Nevermore (1897, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London), and the exquisite Girl with a Fan (1902, Folkwang Museum, Essen). Now regarded as one of the greatest modern artists, many of his paintings are available as prints in the form of poster art.

Girl With A Fan (1902)
Folkwang Museum, Essen. One of
the greatest modern paintings.

The Vision after the Sermon:
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888)
National Galleries of Scotland. One of
the most famous religious paintings
of the Symbolist school.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Paul Gauguin, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

Early Life

Gauguin was born in Paris during the revolution of 1848. His father, an obscure liberal journalist, fled into exile after the coup d'etat of 1851, taking his family with him. However, he died during the voyage, in Panama, while the family continued on to Lima, Peru, where they fended for themselves for four years. Gauguin's mother was the daughter of the French socialist writer and activist Flora Tristan, though her ancestors were Peruvian nobles. The young Gauguin was marked from childhood by the imaginative, messianic atmosphere of his family circle. Indeed, the colours and imagery of Peru would later be strong influences in Gauguin's art. At the age of 7 the family returned to France, and moved to Orleans to live with his grandfather. From the age of 17 to 23 he worked as an apprentice pilot in the merchant navy, sailing between South America and Scandinavia. In 1871 he moved back to Paris and, encouraged by his godfather, Arosa, he began a very successful career with the stockbroker Bertin. Two years later he married a Danish girl, Mette Gad, who bore him five children in quick succession.

For a list of the highest prices paid
for works of art by famous painters:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings and
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings.

Begins Painting Part-Time

Gauguin had been interested in art since childhood, and in his free time began painting. As it was, Arosa was something of an art collector. His example, and Gauguin's own friendship with the Impressionist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), encouraged Gauguin to visit art galleries and buy works by emerging artists, including numerous Impressionist paintings - by the likes of Pissarro himself, Johan-Barthold Jongkind (1819-91), Edouard Manet (1832-83), Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Renoir (1841-1919), Degas (1834-1917) and Mary Cassatt (1845-1926). On one occasion he spent over 17,000 francs.

He visited the now famous, 1874 Impressionist exhibition in Paris and was so inspired that he determined to become a full-time artist. Meanwhile he started painting and sculpting as an amateur. He worked from life with Bouillot, and painted in the style of Bonvin and Lepine (La Seine au pont d'Iena 1875, Musee d'Orsay). In 1876 he exhibited a painting at the Salon. He was particularly influenced by Pissarro, who helped him in his early painting career and encouraged him to "look for the nature that suits your temperament". Pissarro introduced him to Cezanne, and Gauguin was so taken with the older artist's style that Cezanne began to fear that he would steal his ideas. All three worked together for some time at Pontoise. As he progressed in his art, Gauguin moved into his own studio, and took part in the Impressionist exhibitions of 1881 and 1882 (See Impressionist Exhibitions Paris), being praised enthusastically by Huysmans for a solid, realistic Nude (1881, NCG, Copenhagen). Other paintings from this period include: Effect of Snow (1879, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest); Portrait of Gauguin's Daughter Aline (1879, Private Collection); Study of a Nude: Suzanne Sewing (1880, NCG, Copenhagen); At the Window (1882, Hermitage, St. Petersburg); Bouquet (1884, Hermitage, St. Petersburg) and Cattle Drinking (1885, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan).

For more about the initial evolution of Impressionist art, see the following: Impressionism: Origins, Influences; and Impressionism: Early History. For the progression of styles, see: Impressionist Painting Developments.

Full-Time Artist (1885-91)

These encouraging successes and a financial crisis led him to abandon his business career in 1883 in order to concentrate entirely on painting. For two years, between Rouen and Copenhagen, Gauguin tried to find a balance in his life, but it proved impossible and when he returned to Paris in June 1885 his family life was over. He abandoned his wife and family and went to live in Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he met Emile Bernard and Charles Laval. In 1886 he showed 19 canvases at the eighth Impressionist Exhibition, where his originality was already evident in the disquieting rhythms of his landscapes.

It was at Pont-Aven that he forged a new style. No longer satisfied with the limits of Impressionism, he sought to express an interior state rather than just surface appearance. So he and a group of Post-Impressionist painters decided to flatten their painting, to make it appear 2-dimensional, thus reducing a view to its basic fundamentals.

Known as Synthetism, this style required working more from memory and internal images, rather than nature, and thus broke with Impressionist theory. It became Gauguin's greatest innovation and contribution to fine art painting and he used its vivid colour schemes to express emotion rather than to reflect a natural hue - a freedom which allowed him to make the ground red, the sky green or yellow. Synthetism is sometimes also referred to as cloisonnism, but this is a mistake: although cloisonnism features similar blocks of colour, unlike Synthetism it encloses them in thick black outlines.

A journey to Martinique in 1887 with Lavel showed him the synthetic value of colours and revived the influence of Cezanne and Degas. On his return, and during his second stay at Pont-Aven in 1888, Gauguin joined with Anquetin and Bernard in their experiments made under the influence of Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and of Japanese prints. It was a decisive moment for Gauguin, who, at the age of 40, was elaborating an original style by integrating the cloisonnism and symbolism of his friends with his own experience of colour. The "rustic and superstitious simplicity" of the Vision after the Sermon (1888, National Gallery of Scotland), or the scarlet harmonies of La Fete Gloanec (c.1888, Orleans Museum) proclaimed Gauguin's mastery of his medium. Other notable paintings from this period include: The Four Breton Girls (c.1886, Neue Pinakothek, Munich); and Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1888, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

In 1888 he spent three dramatic months in Arles, from October to December 1888 with his friend Van Gogh (1853-1890). Paintings from this period include: Night Cafe at Arles (1888, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts); Women from Arles in the Public Garden, the Mistral (1888, Chicago Institute of Art) and Harvesting of Grapes at Arles (1888, Art Museum Ordrupgard, Copenhagen).

A one-man show organized by Theo van Gogh in November 1888, then his participation in the group exhibitions of the Cercle Volponi during the Parish Exposition and those of Les Vingt in Brussels, revealed, in spite of sarcasm, Gauguin's leading position in the so-called School of Pont-Aven. Even so, he felt restless: he thought that western art had become too imitative and lack symbolic depth. This drew him to African art, and other forms of tribal art, which seemed full of symbolic meaning and did not rely on natural colours to express their meaning. It was an art of broad flat spaces and figures outlined in dark paint. This type of primitive art was characterised by exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts. He applied these elements to his art, as can be seen in such works as The Schuffenecker Family (1889, Musee d'Orsay); Caricature Self-Portrait (1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); The Yellow Christ (1889, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery); Eve. Don't Listen to the Liar (1889, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas). It was a complex mixture of egocentric mysticism (The Agony in the Garden, Palm Beach, Florida Museum) with a taste for the strange and barbarous (Nirvana, Portrait of Meyer de Haan (1889, Hartford, Connecticut, Wadsworth Atheneum).


Leaves France for Tahiti (1891-3)

In 1891, in a bid to escape western urban values and 'everything that is artificial and conventional', he decided to leave France and head for the South Seas. A fairly succcessful auction of his works in Paris (February 1891) allowed him to sail on 4th April after a banquet given in his honour by the Symbolists. In Tahiti he expected to find an unspoiled world, but French Polynesia had already been colonized by Western missionaries, so instead he had to create the world he sought, in his head.

Over the next few years he produced progressively more primitive-style paintings, woodcarvings and graphics, as he strove to express the mythology of Oceanic art. He began with primitive, spiritual compositions such as La Orana Maria (Hail Mary) (1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), Woman with a Flower (1891, NCG, Copenhagen), Two Tahitian Women On the Beach (1891, Musee d'Orsay) and When Will You Marry? (1892, Kunstmuseum Basel), as well as symbolic works like Brooding Woman (1891, Worcester Art Museum) and We Shall Not Go to Market Today (1892, Kunstmuseum Basel) and Arearea (1892, Musee d'Orsay). In addition, he explored a number of myths and superstitions in works like The Moon and The Earth (1892, MoMA, NY) and The spirit of the Dead Keeps Vigil (1892, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY), and produced some outstanding vividly coloured examples of landscape painting such as Tahitian Landscape (1893, Minneapolis Institute of Arts).

Returns to France (1893-5)

Without any means of support, Gauguin returned to France from 1893 to 1895. Depressed by his isolation, and ostentatiously cultivating an air of exoticism that was henceforth to be quite artificial, he held his first major one-man show at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel, but sold only 11 canvases and was successful mainly in arousing curiosity. The paintings of that time were an aggressive, nostalgic attempt to recall what he had experienced in Tahiti and to show up the evils of civilization. He went back to Pouldu and Pont-Aven, where he was injured in a brawl and unable to move. It was then that he made an astonishing group of wood-engravings in which he expressed the silent terror of religious practices in Tahiti, making use of a precise technique full of contrasts, which was a revival of the form of early woodcuts.

Tahiti: Final Period (1895-1903)

After being forced to sell up the contents of his studio, Gauguin returned to Tahiti in March 1895. Alone and in debt, depressed and ill, he went through a terrible crisis, made worse by the death of his daughter Aline. A sense of the wretchedness of human destiny, and a growing need for plastic solidity and classical rhythms, found relection in works like Nevermore (1897, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London). In 1897, before his attempt at suicide in February 1898, he painted his largest ever composition Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going? (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), a pictorial testament in which "what is premature vanishes and life surges up" sumptuously through the austere subject.

After 1898, regularly supported by the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard, and then by several faithful admirers including Fayet, Gauguin found himself free of material worries, although constantly at odds with the civil and religious authorities on the island. He expressed his messianic sense that he was being persecuted in two publications, Les Guepes and Le Sourire, illustrated with wood-engravings, and in the engravings that decorated his house, (La Maison du Jouir, Musee d'Orsay Paris, and MFA Boston). In 1899, he painted Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), and Three Tahitians (National Gallery, Edinburgh), which again revealed the strange secret charm of the broad volumes he used.

After he had settled in Atuana on the Marquesas island of Hiva Oa in 1901, Gauguin became progressively weaker, and accentuated with vibrant brushstrokes the delicate relationship between his greens, violets and pinks: see, The Gold of their Bodies (1901, Musee d'Orsay); The Call (1902, Cleveland Museum); Horsemen on the Beach (1902, Stavros Niarchos Collection Paris and Folkwang Museum Essen). He also produced one of his most hauntingly beautiful works - Girl with a Fan (1902, Folkwang Museum, Essen).

In his last years he wrote a great deal, letters to his friends, a study of The Modern Spirit and Catholicism and Before and After, an important meditation, although anecdotal and romanticized, upon his life and work. He died on 8th May 1903 from syphilis, his system weakened by alcohol and a dissipated lifestyle. He is buried in the Marquesas Islands, Polynesia.


Although he died in relative obscurity, his paintings became popular soon after his death. The Russian collector Sergei Shchukin bought numerous works, which are now displayed in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, and and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. They rarely come up for sale, and if they do, they can sell for as much as $40 million. This reflects his powerful influence on modern art of the early twentieth century.

Through exhibitions arranged after his death - notably his retrospectives at the Salon d'Automne in 1903 and 1906 - Gauguin's influence soon spread far beyond the Pont-Aven circle and the Nabis, who learned about him through Paul Serusier (1864-1927). The work of Jens Willumsen (1863-1958) in Denmark, Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in Norway, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) in Germany, Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) in Switzerland, Nonell in Spain, and also Picasso (1881-1973) in his 'Blue' and 'Orange' periods - all foreshadow the even more significant impact he had on Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Fauvists like Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) and Andre Derain (1880-1954), as well as Cubists like Roger de La Fresnaye (1885-1925), Expressionists like Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), Max Pechstein (1881-1955) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), and Orphists like Robert Delaunay (1885-1941).

In addition, along with Cezanne and Van Gogh, Gauguin was a central artist in the landmark Post-Impressionist London exhibition, entitled: Manet and the Post-Impressionists (1910), organized by Roger Fry (1866-1934).

Gauguin's work appears in many of the best art museums in Europe and America. A Gauguin Museum was set up in Tahiti in 1965, and contains many documents connected with his life and work.

• For more biographies of French Post-Impressionist artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For information about contemporary artists, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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