Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a French post-Impressionist artist. Underappreciated until after his death, Gauguin is now recognized for his experimental use of color and synthetist style that were distinctly 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. Many of his paintings were in the possession of Russian collector Sergei Shchukin as well as other important collections.
He was an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, 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.
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,At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orleans to live with his paternal 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. the family left Paris for Peru, motivated by the political climate of the period. 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 maternal 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.
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 15, rue la Bruyere. Nearby were the cafes frequented by the Impressionists. Gauguin also visited galleries frequently and purchased work by emerging artists. He formed a friendship with Camille Pissarro and visited him on Sundays to paint in his garden. 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. His close friend Emile Schuffenecker, a former stockbroker who also aspired to become an artist, lived close by. Gauguin showed paintings in Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882 – (earlier a sculpture, of his son Emile, had been the only sculpture in the 4th Impressionist Exhibition of 1879.) His paintings received dismissive reviews, although several of them, such as The Market Gardens of Vaugirard, are now highly regarded.
In 1882, the stock market crashed and the art market contracted. Paul Durand-Ruel, the Impressionists' primary art dealer, was especially affected by the crash and for a period of time stopped buying pictures from painters such as Gauguin. Gauguin's earnings contracted sharply and over the next two years he slowly formulated his plans to become a full-time artist. The following two summers, he painted with Pissarro and occasionally Paul Cezanne. In October 1883, he wrote to Pissarro saying that he had decided to make his living from painting at all cost and asked for his help, which Pissarro at first readily provided. The following January, Gauguin moved with his family to Rouen, where they could live more cheaply and where he thought he had discerned opportunities when visiting Pissarro there the previous summer. However, the venture proved unsuccessful, and by the end of the year Mette returned to Copenhagen, Gauguin following shortly after in November 1884, bringing with him his art collection, which subsequently remained in Copenhagen.
Life in Copenhagen proved equally difficult and their marriage grew strained. At Mette's urging, supported by her family, Gauguin returned to Paris the following year.
Gauguin returned to Paris in June 1885, accompanied by his six-year-old son Clovis. The other children remained with Mette in Copenhagen, where they had the support of family and friends while Mette herself was able to get work as a translator and French teacher. Gauguin initially found it difficult to re-enter the art world in Paris and spent his first winter back in real poverty, obliged to take a series of menial jobs. Clovis eventually fell ill and was sent to a boarding school, Gauguin's sister Marie providing the funds. During this first year, he produced very little art. He exhibited nineteen paintings and a wood relief at the eighth (and last) Impressionist exhibition in May 1886. Most of these paintings were earlier work from Rouen or Copenhagen and there was nothing really novel in the few new ones, although his Baigneuses a Dieppe ("Women Bathing") introduced what was to become a recurring motif, the woman in the waves. Nevertheless, Felix Bracquemond did purchase one of his paintings. This exhibition also established Georges Seurat as leader of the avant-garde movement in Paris. Gauguin contemptuously rejected Seurat's Neo-Impressionist Pointillist technique and later in the year broke decisively with Pissarro, who from that point on was rather antagonistic towards Gauguin.
Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist's colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. He was attracted in the first place because it was cheap to live there. However, he found himself an unexpected success with the young art students who flocked there in the summer. His naturally pugilistic temperament (he was both an accomplished boxer and fencer) was no impediment in the socially relaxed seaside resort. He was remembered during that period as much for his outlandish appearance as for his art. Amongst these new associates was Charles Laval, who accompanied Gauguin the following year to Panama and Martinique.
That summer, he executed some pastel drawings of nude figures in the manner of Pissarro and those by Degas exhibited at the 1886 eighth Impressionist exhibition. He mainly painted landscapes such as La Bergere Bretonne ("The Breton Shepherdess"), in which the figure plays a subordinate role. His Jeunes Bretons au bain ("Young Breton Boys Bathing"), introducing a theme he returned to each time he visited Pont-Aven, is clearly indebted to Degas in its design and bold use of pure color. The naive drawings of the English illustrator Randolph Caldecott, used to illustrate a popular guide-book on Brittany, had caught the imagination of the avant-garde student artists at Pont-Aven, anxious to free themselves from the conservatism of their academies, and Gauguin consciously imitated them in his sketches of Breton girls. These sketches were later worked up into paintings back in his Paris studio. The most important of these is Four Breton Women, which shows a marked departure from his earlier Impressionist style as well as incorporating something of the naive quality of Caldecott's illustration, exaggerating features to the point of caricature.
Gauguin, along with Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Emile Schuffenecker and many others, re-visited Pont-Aven after his travels in Panama and Martinique. The bold use of pure color and Symbolist choice of subject matter distinguish what is now called the 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.
Under the influence of folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin's work evolved towards Cloisonnism, a style given its name by the critic Edouard Dujardin in response to Emile Bernard's method of painting with flat areas of color and bold outlines, which reminded Dujardin of the Medieval cloisonne 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 which is replicated on his fans. Rural and indigenous populations remained a popular subject in Gauguin's work after he left the island.
Gauguin's Martinique paintings were exhibited at his color merchant Arsene 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. The arrangement with Goupil's continued past Theo's death in January 1891. 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.
Although Gauguin made some of his early strides in the world of art under Pissarro, Edgar Degas was Gauguin's most admired contemporary artist and a great influence on his work from the beginning, with his figures and interiors as well as a carved and painted medallion of singer Valerie Roumi. He had a deep reverence for Degas' artistic dignity and tact. It was Gauguin's healthiest, longest lasting friendship, spanning his entire artistic career until his death. By 1890, Gauguin had conceived the project of making Tahiti his next artistic destination. A successful auction of paintings in Paris at the Hotel Drouot in February 1891, along with other events such as a banquet and a benefit concert, provided the necessary funds. The auction had been greatly helped by a flattering review from Octave Mirbeau, courted by Gauguin through Camille Pissarro. After visiting his wife and children in Copenhagen, 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. His avowed intent was to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional". Nevertheless, he took care to take with him a collection of visual stimuli in the form of photographs, drawings and prints.
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. By late summer 1892 this painting was being displayed at Goupil's gallery in Paris. Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews believes that Gauguin's encounter with exotic sensuality in Tahiti, so evident in the painting, was by far the most important aspect of his sojourn there.
In all, Gauguin sent nine of his paintings to Monfreid in Paris. These were eventually exhibited in Copenhagen 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 Gauguin to contemplate returning with some seventy others he had completed. He had in any case largely run out of funds, depending on a state grant for a free passage home. In addition he had some health problems diagnosed as heart problems by the local doctor, which Mathews suggests may have been the early signs of cardiovascular syphilis.
Gauguin later wrote a travelogue (first published 1901) titled Noa Noa, originally conceived 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. In it he revealed that he had at this time taken a thirteen-year-old girl as native wife or vahine (the Tahitian word for "woman"), a marriage contracted in the course of a single afternoon. This was Teha'amana, called Tehura in the travelogue, who was pregnant by him by the end of summer 1892. Teha'amana 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 Musee d'Orsay.
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). 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 Vercingetorix 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.
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; 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.
At the beginning of 1903, Gauguin engaged in a campaign designed to expose the incompetence of the island's gendarmes, Jean-Paul Claverie, taking the side of the natives directly in a case involving the alleged drunkenness of a group of them. Claverie, however, escaped censure. At the beginning of February, Gauguin wrote to the administrator, Francois Picquenot, alleging corruption by one of Claverie's subordinates. Picquenot investigated the allegations but could not substantiate them. Claverie responded by filing a charge of libeling a gendarme against Gauguin, who was subsequently fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months' imprisonment by the local magistrate on 27 March 1903. Gauguin immediately filed an appeal in Papeete and set about raising the funds to travel to Papeete to hear his appeal.