Paul Gauguin

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a leading French Post-Impressionist artist. He was an important figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist, and writer. His bold experimentation with colouring 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.

Biography

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the half-Peruvian proto-socialist leader Flora Tristan, a feminist precursor. In 1851 the family left Paris for Peru, motivated by the political climate of the period. Clovis died on the voyage, leaving three-year old Paul, his mother and sister to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima, Peru with Paul's uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art.

At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France. They moved to Orléans, France to live with his grandfather. He soon learned French and excelled in his studies. At seventeen, Gauguin signed on as a pilot's assistant in the merchant marine to fulfill his required military service. Three years later, he joined the French navy where he stayed for two years. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad. Over the next ten years, they had five children.

By 1884 Gauguin had moved with his family to Copenhagen, where he pursued a business career as a stockbroker. Driven to paint full-time, he returned to Paris in 1885, leaving his family in Denmark. Without adequate subsistence, his wife (Mette Sophie Gadd) and their five children returned to her family. Gauguin outlived two of his children. Like his friend Vincent van Gogh, with whom in 1888 he spent nine weeks painting in Arles, Paul Gauguin experienced bouts of depression and at one time attempted suicide. He made several attempts to find a tropical paradise where he could 'live on fish and fruit' and paint in his increasingly primitive style, including short stays in Martinique and as a labourer on the Panama Canal construction; however, he was dismissed from his job after only two weeks. In 1891, Gauguin, frustrated by lack of recognition at home and financially destitute, sailed to the tropics to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional". His time there, particularly in Tahiti and the Marquesas, was the subject of much interest both then and in modern times due to his alleged sexual exploits. He was known to have had trysts with several peripubescent native girls, some of whom appear as subjects of his paintings.

In 1903, due to a problem with the church and the government, he was sentenced to three months in prison and fined. At that time he was being supported by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. He died of syphilis before he could start the prison sentence. His body had been weakened by alcohol and a dissipated life. He was 54 years old.

Gauguin died on 8 May 1903 and is buried in Calvary Cemetery (Cimetière Calvaire), Atuona, Hiva ‘Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia.

Artistic career

Gauguin began painting in his free time. He also visited galleries frequently and purchased work by emerging artists. Gauguin formed a friendship with artist Camille Pissarro, who introduced him to various other artists. As he progressed in his art, Gauguin rented a studio, and showed paintings in Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882. Over two summer holidays, he painted with Camille Pissarro and occasionally Paul Cézanne.

 

In 1887, after visiting Panama, he spent several months near Saint Pierre in Martinique, in the company of his friend the artist Charles Laval. 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. He also suffered dysentery and marsh fever. While in Martinique, he produced between ten and twenty works (twelve being the most common estimate) and 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. Gauguin, along with Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Emile Schuffenecker and many others frequently visited the artist colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. By the bold use of pure color and Symbolist choice of subject matter the group is now considered a Pont-Aven School. Disappointed with Impressionism, he 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.

Cloisonnism and Synthetism

 

Under the influence of folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin evolved towards Cloisonnism, a style given its name by the critic Édouard Dujardin in response to Émile Bernard's method of painting with flat areas of color and bold outlines, which reminded Dujardin of the Medieval cloisonné enamelling 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 colour separated by heavy black outlines. In such works Gauguin paid little attention to classical perspective and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of colour, thereby dispensing with the two most characteristic principles of post-Renaissance painting. His painting later evolved towards Synthetism in which neither form nor colour predominate but each has an equal role.

Living in Mataiea Village in Tahiti, he painted "Fatata te Miti" ("By the Sea"), "Ia Orana Maria" (Ave Maria) and other depictions of Tahitian life. He moved to Punaauia in 1897, where he created the masterpiece painting "Where Do We Come From" and then lived the rest of his life in the Marquesas Islands, returning to France only once, when he painted at Pont-Aven.

His works of that period are full of quasi-religious symbolism and an exoticized view of the inhabitants of Polynesia. In Polynesia, he sided with the native peoples, clashing often with the colonial authorities and with the Catholic Church. During this period he also wrote the book Avant et après (before and after), a fragmented collection of observations about life in Polynesia, memories from his life and comments on literature and paintings.

Historical significance

Primitivism was an art movement of late 19th century painting and sculpture; characterized by exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts. The first artist to systematically use these effects and achieve broad public success was Paul Gauguin. The European cultural elite discovering the art of Africa, Micronesia, and Native Americans for the first time were fascinated, intrigued and educated by the newness, wildness and the stark power embodied in the art of those faraway places. Like Pablo Picasso in the early days of the 20th century, Gauguin was inspired and motivated by the raw power and simplicity of the so-called Primitive art of those foreign cultures.

Gauguin is also considered a Post-Impressionist painter. His bold, colorful and design oriented paintings significantly influenced Modern art. Gauguin's influence on artists and movements in the early 20th century include Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, André Derain, Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism, among others. Later he influenced Arthur Frank Mathews and the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

John Rewald, an art historian focused on the birth of Modern art, wrote a series of books about the Post-Impressionist period, including Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956) and an essay, Paul Gauguin: Letters to Ambroise Vollard and André Fontainas (included in Rewald's Studies in Post-Impressionism, 1986), discusses Gauguin's years in Tahiti, and the struggles of his survival as seen through correspondence with the art dealer Vollard and others.

Gauguin and Van Gogh

Gauguin's relationship with Van Gogh was rocky. Gauguin had shown an early interest in Impressionism, and the two shared bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies. In 1888, Gauguin and Van Gogh spent nine weeks together, painting in the latter's Yellow House in Arles. During this time, Gauguin became increasingly disillusioned with Impressionism, and the two quarreled. On the evening of December 23, 1888, frustrated and ill, Van Gogh confronted Gauguin with a razor blade. In a panic, Van Gogh fled to a local brothel. While there, he cut off the lower part of his left ear lobe. He wrapped the severed tissue in newspaper and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to "keep this object carefully." Gauguin left Arles and never saw Van Gogh again. A few days later, Van Gogh was hospitalized.

Paul Gauguin - Sonntag

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Sonntag

1894

66 × 87 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

Paul Gauguin - The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch

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The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch

1892

72,4 × 92,4 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

Paul Gauguin - The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel)

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04_Gauguin_La_Vision_apres_le_Sermon

 

 

The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel)

1888

73 × 92 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

Paul Gauguin - The Alyscamps

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03_Gauguin_Les_alyscampsThe Alyscamps

1888

91.6 × 72.5 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

Paul Gauguin - The Yellow Christ

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The Yellow Christ

1889

92,1 × 73 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

Paul Gauguin - The Swineherd

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The Swineherd

1888

73 × 93 cm

Oil on canvas

 

 

 

 

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