Paul Gauguin is one of the central figures in artistic life of France during fin de siècle. A self-educated artist, on different stages of his life he was influenced by Barbizon school, Impressionism, Symbolism and even Japanese art, but all that didn’t interrupted his development as a unique and recognizable master. His legacy is usually discussed in the tideway of Postimpressionism.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born on June 7, 1848 in Paris. His father was a journalist of the republican newspaper “National”. Change of the political situation forced him to leave the motherland. On the boat that sailed to the South America Clovis suddenly died. The widow returned to France with kids in 1855. Paul, the elder son, had to undergo education in private schools. He had a dream of becoming a sailor. At seventeen he hired out as a sailor on a merchant marine and later joined the French Navy. The young man sailed across the Atlantics and even in the north waters on the cruiser “Jerome Napoleon”.
Gauguin returned to Paris in seven years and was appointed a bank clerk (with a help of guardian). He quickly gained self-sufficiency and financial situation allowed him to collect works of Impressionists.
In 1873 Paul Gauguin got married on Mette-Sophie Gad from Denmark. Next ten years were marked by strengthening of his social status – he bought a comfortable house in Parisian countryside, wife born him five kids. In his leisure time Gaugin passionately engrossed into his hobby – drawing.
He began painting in 1870s. Impressionism was the most innovative movement of that time, so Paul enthusiastically absorbed ideas of his new fellows and tried to realize them in his canvases. A couple of lessons from Camille Pissarro were very helpful for that.
At first, Gauguin modestly appraised his skills. When one of his pieces was chosen for exhibition in the official Salon, he didn’t tell about that even to his wife. With time Gauguin’s name could be heard more and more often on the artistic circles, so the author began thinking of devoting himself to painting.
First Paul’s works that were publicly displayed – “The Seine near the Jena Bridge” (1875), etude “Susanna” (1880), “Garden under snow” (1883) – were close to impressionsm. But very soon the artist got interested in the aesthetical program of symbolists, who attached a special emotional meaning to colors, lines and other means of expression, and refused typical for impressionists dispersion of colors.
Stock crisis of 1882, which put financial prosperity of Gauguin under threat, was a powerful enough motivator for the final decision in favor of art. Anyway, financial troubles also affected painting, since works weren’t in request and Paul’s life turned into struggle for survival. Trying to limit expands, the artist moved to Rouen together with his family and later – to Denmark. There he was selling tarpaulin and his wife taught French. Business didn’t go well, which (together with other factors) led to strain of relations with Mette. They divorced in June 1885. Paul returned to Paris with his second son, Clovis, and Mette stayed in Denmark with other kids. She sold the collection of ex-husband’s pieces and didn’t send any money to Gauguin; moreover, she forbade children writing to their father.
Paul Gauguin tried to overcome financial difficulties and even applied for the vacancy of a cashier on the railway station. But for his painting it was a milestone, when the artist shifted from Impressionism.
The beginning of changes was connected with Brittany. Gauguin visited it for the first time in 1886 – it was a picturesque periphery at that time, where old traditions had preserved. They defined that region of France from the rest: Breton people were Celtic ethnos with their own language, national costumes and religious festivals. All that evoked love to exotics that slumbered in Paul’s heart. Therefore, he decided to start travelling again.
The first travel wasn’t very successful. In 1887 the painter left for Panama together with Charles Laval, who counted on financial support from his brother-in-law. But the didn’t receive it, so Gauguin had to work on the building of the Panama Canal. After scrapping a small sum, he left for Martinique, where caught malaria and dysentery. Coming back to France, the master moved to Brittany.
In the pieces done there in contrast to bright coloring of impressionistic period Gauguin concentrated on depicting austere beauty of the place and scenes from the peasant’s everyday life. Friendship with Emile Bernard inspired him for creating the first major painting – “Vision after the Sermon” (or “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel”, 1888), where elements of Breton’s culture were mixed with cardinally simplified manner. Some of Paul’s best landscapes and religious scenes (like “The Yellow Christ”, 1889) also belong to the Breton’s period, when the author became a leader of a new movement – Synthetism, whose adherents used colors in a new way, outlining objects, making images simpler and juxtaposing big areas of pure tints, in order to achieve emotional effect.
Another Gauguin’s acquaintance was about to end up with tragedy. In October 1888 he agreed to spend winter in Arles on South of France, together with Vincent van Gogh he had met in Paris two years before. Van Gogh dreamed of setting up an artistic colony in Arles and hoped to find a like-minded person in Paul. But for the artist that journey was just a good chance to work warm climate without caring of daily bread – Vincent’s brother Theo promised to cover all expanses.
The situation worsened, as Paul Gauguin, used to being surrounded with rapt followers in Brittany, started treating van Gogh like a student. So in a while a conflict burst out and on December 23 Vincent attacked his guest with knife and then cut off a part of his ear. Gauguin immediately left for Paris.
During that journey the artist created several magnificent drawings and canvases. His paintings “Old woman of Arles”, “Night Café at Arles” (or “Madame Ginoux”) were defined by tendency to generalization of expressive means. Some of the compositional aspects originated from Japanese prints. This vector was developed in Gauguin’s works in 1889 – 1890: “La bella Angela”, “Haystacks in Brittany”, “Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin” (with a hint at masterpiece by Gustav Courbet “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet”). The pieces are penetrated with melancholic notes, as the artist suffered from being unrecognized and poor.
Paul spent some years moving from Paris to Brittan, but he was attracted by new perspectives. After visiting the International Exhibition in Paris in 1889 that reminded him about out-of-the-way parts of the world, the desire for changes seized him again. Tahiti was chosen as a point of destination, where Gauguin planned to immerse himself into natural purity and to see nobody except the natives. To raise money for the voyage he sold off his paintings and got over 10 000 franks.
In June 1891 the painter arrived to Tahiti and was immediately disappointed. Papeete (the island’s capital) was civilized and lost its primitive character. Diseases brought by Europeans were “mowing” the population. The island was dying out together with local crafts, religions and traditions.
Paul Gauguin bought a thatched hut in an obscure village and set off working. Depicting vivid and colorful beauty of the tropical nature, untouched by civilization, the master tried to realize his utopian dream about the earthly paradise, where humanity could live in harmony with surroundings. His palette brightened with hues of tropical verdure, sea, sun and sand. Gauguin worked fruitfully and rendered such famous pieces as “Spirit of the Dead Watching” (or “Manao tupapau”, 1892), “Tahitian pastorals” (1893), “Conversation” (1891), “Are you jealous?” (1892), “Woman holding a fruit” (1893) etc. On many of them we can see Tehura – 13-years-old local girl, whose parents gladly married her on Paul.
Despite idyllic atmosphere of the canvases, fortune didn’t favor the painter. He quickly ran out of money and had to dilute paints with the paste from the breadfruit tree’s root. Gauguin’s health was also undermined, therefore he returned to Paris in 1893, but not for long. After coming into a small fortune in 1895 he left for Tahiti again. Paintings of the second Tahitian period were frieze-like. Along with scenes from local life, like “The King’s Wife” (1896), “Tahitian family” (1896), he produces some religious-mystical compositions. For instance, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” is an allegory of stages of human life.
Before coming back to France the artist caught syphilis, so his legs refused to serve him and he coul walk only using two canes. It was the time, when his success began thousands kilometers away from Tahiti, in France. Gauguin had no idea about it and entertained himself with quarrels with local authorities: he instigated locals to refuse sending kinds to the missionary schools and paying taxes. Paul also published a newspaper (only 20 copies each), where placed caricatures on local officials. Life became more complicated as the kind attitude of the natives to him met resistance from colonial government. Gauguin visited Tahiti for the second time to die – money he had should be enough for year and a half and he took arsenic with himself as a last resort. In 1898 left out-of-pocket he tried to committee suicide, but the dose was too big and he survived.
In 1901 Paul Gauguin moved to Dominica (one of the Marquesas Islands) and died there at night on May 9, 1903. The master’s ill-wishers tittle-tattled he killed himself, whereas his friends were sure Paul was killed: a huge syringe with traces of morphine suited both versions.