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The French painter Paul Gauguin {goh-gan'}, b. June 7, 1848, d. May 8, 1903, was one of the leading figures in postimpressionist art of the 1880s and '90s (see postimpressionism). Both his personality and his principles of coloring and composition exerted a strong influence on modern painting.

Gauguin spent 4 years of his childhood with his mother in Peru -- an experience of the tropics that he never forgot -- and returned to France in 1855. In 1865 he joined the merchant navy and made several long sea voyages.

Tahitian Women

"Tahitian Women"
by Paul Gauguin

Gauguin obtained a position with a stock brokerage firm in 1871 and married a Dane, Mette Gad, in 1873, with whom he had five children. During this period he was essentially a "Sunday" painter, pursuing his art on weekends and in the summer, but in 1875 he met Camille Pissarro and began to work with him to improve his drawing and painting. The financial crash of 1882-83 left him without work and prompted his decision to become a full-time artist. Successive moves -- to Rouen in 1883 and to Copenhagen in 1884 -- brought Gauguin no commercial or critical success. Finally he abandoned his wife and family in Denmark and returned to France accompanied only by his son Clovis.

Prior to this time Gauguin's painting displayed the marks of his gradual assimilation of the principles and techniques of impressionism. Now he began experimenting with ceramics and sculpture, moving rapidly toward a firmness of composition and a concern for rhythm and mass in painting. In 1887 he went to Panama and Martinique but was forced home by illness and lack of funds. In 1888, Gauguin returned to Brittany, which he had first visited in 1886.

A Farm In Brittany

"A Farm In Brittany"
by Paul Gauguin
Metropolitan Museum of Art


There he painted Vision After the Sermon (1888; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), in which Breton women returning from church see a vision of the biblical struggle between Jacob and the angel, about which the priest has just preached. The use of bold color and strongly defined forms, together with a subject that combines the visionary and the real in one composition, marked a decisive breakthrough for Gauguin. After spending a few months at Arles with Vincent van Gogh at the end of 1888, Gauguin passed the next few years in Brittany, where he continued to paint the local people and their way of life and simple faith, and in Paris, where he established contact with the leading writers and theorists of the symbolist movement. Although Gauguin called the style he developed in 1888 synthetism, he now instilled into his work qualities of mystery and suggestiveness that may be compared with symbolism in literature.

Early in 1891, Gauguin left for Tahiti, where he began a series of paintings that depict the physical beauty of the people and the myths underlying their traditional religion. The series evokes the Tahitian cycle of existence from birth through maturity to old age and death. Gauguin visited France for the last time in 1893-95, then returned to Tahiti. Plagued increasingly by ill health and poverty, he attempted suicide in 1898 after completing, by way of a last testament to his vision of Tahiti, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The paintings of his final years project an idealized vision of native life, removed from both time and actuality in its conception of the physical and spiritual dimensions of Tahitian culture. His last journey was to La Dominique in the Marquesas, where he died.

Mark Roskill
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, © 1997
Bibliography: R. Brettell, et al., The Art of Paul Gauguin (1988); Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, trans. by O. F. Theis (1957; repr. 1985) and Avant et Apres (The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin), trans. by V. W. Brooks (1921); R. Goldwater, Gauguin (1984); M. Hoog, Paul Gauguin: Life and Works, trans. by Devanthery-Lewis (1988); Y. Le Pichon, Gauguin (1987); J. Leymarie, Gauguin: Watercolors, Pastels, Drawings (1989); D. Sweetman, Paul Gauguin (1996); Thompson, B., Gauguin (1987).
Images: "Tahitian women" (xxx); "A Farm In Brittany" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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Gauguin Quotations:

"Art is either plagiarism or revolution." (1)

Sources of Quotations: (1) Huneker, Pathos of Distance, p. 128.
[The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.]

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