Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, a French Post-Impressionist artist, was a printmaker and sculptor. Gaugin was also famous for his artistic experiments, which influenced several avant-garde methods from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. A good example is his bold and innovative use of coloring and exaggerated body proportions, which had a formative influence on the synthetic art style.
Additionally, Gauguin’s use of the Cloisonnist style to express the mystical and emotional meanings behind his art subjects directly paved the way for Primitivism, a trend among modern artists who sought new artistic methods from distant tribal cultures. Also, Gauguin had a creative relationship with Vincent Van Gogh. The two often worked together while Gauguin resided in France.
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin abandoned Western civilization for a self-imposed exile in Tahiti, French Polynesia. He spent ten years on the island painting the people and exotic landscapes from the region. Now, let’s examine Gauguin’s life on the Island of Tahiti.
Let’s Dig in the Background
Gauguin was a son of Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. He was born in Paris on June 7, 1848, during a time of revolutionary upheavals in Europe. His father was a liberal journalist from Orléans, while his mother was half Peruvian and the daughter of Flora Tristan, a writer and activist during the early socialist movements.
Due to the political climate at that given time, the family was compelled to flee France for Peru. Clovis hoped to further his journalism there, but he died en route, leaving behind his wife and two children; Paul, who was 18 months old, and his older sister Marie. The family stayed with Aline’s paternal granduncle and enjoyed privileged treatment because his son-in-law, José Rufino Echeniquesoon, soon became the Peruvian President.
The Peruvian Civil war of 1854 ousted Gauguin’s relatives from political power, and once again, the Gauguin family had to flee the country. Aline returned to France with her children, where they lived with their paternal grandfather in Orleans; Paul was seven years old.
Following their relocation back to France, Gauguin learned to speak French, and he excelled in his studies at the local schools he attended. Then, in fulfilling the required military service, he registered as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine at 17 and later enrolled with the navy at 20. On returning to Paris in 1871, he secured a job as a stockbroker and later married Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had five children.
Gaugin’s Early Career
Gauguin took up painting in his spare time and employed the style of the Impressionist artists who frequented the cafés near his rue la Bruyère residence. He also began to collect a modest array of artwork he purchased from the galleries he visited. He became friends with Camille Pissarro and spent his Sunday afternoons painting in the latter’s garden. He also met various other artists through Pissarro.
In 1877, he moved into a new apartment with a studio where he painted his earliest works. From 1881, he began showing his paintings at Impressionist exhibitions. Unfortunately, most of Paul Gauguin famous drawings received dismissive criticisms. They only became appreciated after his death partially due to the efforts of Ambroise Vollard, an art dealer who organized posthumous exhibitions in Gauguin’s honor.
The stock market plummeted in 1882, costing Gauguin his job as a stockbroker. Consequently, he decided to become a full-time artist. After relocating his family to Copenhagen, he returned to Paris in 1885, hoping to create a successful career for himself as an artist. The mid-1880s was a turning point for Gauguin as he developed his Symbolist painting style.
By the late 1880s, Gauguin’s work caught the attention of Vincent van Gogh who at the time was a young and promising artist like painter Paui Gauguin. At Gogh’s invitation in 1888, Gauguin moved South of France, where both men worked together for several weeks, producing an impressive amount of artwork, including Gauguin’s now-famous Night Café at Arles.
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A Life-Changing Tahiti Decision
In 1891, Gauguin visited his wife and children in Copenhagen. He promised to return as a wealthy man and give them a fresh start. He set sail for Tahiti shortly after, and as it turned out, it was the last time they would ever see him. He decided to remain in French Polynesia for the rest of his life, only returning to France once. The decision to exile himself was motivated by a strong desire to escape what he called “an artificial European culture.”
Many of his most celebrated works date back to this period. He mostly painted traditional portraits, impressive for their careful portrayal of Polynesian features. These include Woman with a Flower (1891), Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891), and Two Tahitian Women (1899).
Seeking an otherworldly sense of tranquility and spiritual detachment, he dabbled in quasi-religious themes, as seen in Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch) and masterpiece Where Do We Come. From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Around this time, he also wrote Avant et après (Before and After), a book about his observations in Polynesia and memories from his earlier years.
Gauguin often sided with the natives against the colonial authorities and the Catholic Church. Owing to a dispute with the church and local authorities, he was charged with a fine and then sentenced to three months in prison in 1903. However, his health had deteriorated from drug addiction and complications from syphilis, and before he could serve his sentence, he died in May 1903 at the age of 54. He was buried in the Marquesas Islands.
Gauguin’s distaste for European civilization was pivotal in shaping his posthumous reputation. However, the defining factor was his fascination with natives in their indigenous environment during his travels to so-called primitive cultures, particularly Tahiti. This greatly inspired his artistry and established him as an icon of ultimate artistic liberty and the innovative painter he is known as today.