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Paul Gauguin: Brilliant French Painter of Several Art Movements

Updated on May 08, 2016
"Where Do We Come From?  What Are We?  Where Are We Going?" (1897)  Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Paul Gauguin's masterpiece painting.
"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" (1897) Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Paul Gauguin's masterpiece painting. | Source
Photograph of Paul Gauguin 1891
Photograph of Paul Gauguin 1891 | Source
Self-portait (1888)  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Self-portait (1888) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Source

Paul Gauguin 1848 - 1903

One of the most interesting French painters that cannot be definitively categorized into one artistic or painting movement is Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin. Gauguin's painting and artistic career overlapped into several different art movements as his art evolved over the years.

He is also unusual as he did not have any art training or painting in his youth, but in his later adult years began to paint. Because of all this, his paintings were not fully appreciated until after his death.

He is described by art critics as a post-impressionist painter, a symbolist painter and a synthetist painter. He also is considered a beginning painter of the modernist period.

Gaugin is widely recognized for his experimental use of colors and synthetist style that were distinguishly different from Impressionism. His use of these bold colors led to a synthetist style of modern art.

He also paved the way to Primitivism in his paintings under the influence of the cloisonnist style. So, Gauguin, certainly cannot be placed into any one art style or movement.

Symbolism was a late 19th century art movement originating in France, Belgian and Russia. It was a reaction against naturalism and realism and anti-idealistic styles, and it was in favor of spirituality, the imagination and dreams. It elevated the humble and the ordinary over the ideal in paintings.

Synthetism was a form used by the post-Impressionist artists to distinguish their work from Impressionism and connected to Cloissonnism. It emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns and differing from impressionist art and theory.

Gauguin, when he began to paint, first painted with the Impressionists, but that art did not inspire him as he moved on to using much more bold colors and strokes in his paintings. He moved from here finally to Primitivism which is painting exaggerated body proportions, animal totems, geometric designs and stark contrasts.

Many of the modernist painters, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, were greatly influenced by Gauguin's paintings and avante-garde works.

Poster advertisement for one of the Sythetist art showings of which Gauguin was an artist.
Poster advertisement for one of the Sythetist art showings of which Gauguin was an artist. | Source
"Watermill in Pont-Aven" (1874) by Paul Gauguin.
"Watermill in Pont-Aven" (1874) by Paul Gauguin. | Source

Early Life

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France in 1848 to a French father and a half-French and half-Peruvian mother. Gauguin was most proud of his Peruvian heritage and native Peruvian indian heritage figured prominently in his own paintings.

His father died when he was eighteen months old and he and his mother and sister moved to Peru and lived with his mother's family there. At age seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, this time living in Orleans with his grandfather

Gauguin's first language was always Peruvian Spanish, but he learned French when he attended school. This would remain true for the rest of his life as he always identified first with his Peruvian heritage. He was an intelligent student and made excellent marks in his studies.

Gauguin spent six years after formal schooling in the merchant marines.

In 1873, he married a Dane, Mette-Sophie God and they had five children together. Gauguin became a stockbroker in Paris and worked at this quite successfully for eleven years. During this time he became a collector of Impressionist paintings and began dabbling in painting himself in his free time.

He also dabbled in sculpture and by 1879 a small statuette of his had been accepted for the fourth Impressionist exhibition. The next year he exhibited seven paintings in the Paris Impressionist show.

After Paris, Gauguin and his family moved to Copenhagen, Denmark where he was a tarpaulin salesman, but was quite unsuccessful at this. His marriage and family life collapsed and he returned to Paris alone in 1885 to paint full time.

In 1888 he spend about two months painting in Arles, France with Vincent Van Gogh and the two men fought constantly over painting technique and colors, and finally in response to an argument he and Gauguin had, Van Gogh cut off his ear lobe in frustration and the two men never spoke again.

Gauguin also experienced bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts during his lifetime. After this incident, Gauguin traveled to the Caribbean island of Martinique in search of an idyllic landscape to paint.

Later, he continued on to French Polynesia and Tahiti to escape what Gauguin called the artificial and inauthentic European civilization.

"The Vision After the Sermon" (1888) by Paul Gauguin.
"The Vision After the Sermon" (1888) by Paul Gauguin. | Source
"The Yellow Christ" (1889)  Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
"The Yellow Christ" (1889) Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. | Source
"Spirit of the Dead" (1892) by Paul Gauguin
"Spirit of the Dead" (1892) by Paul Gauguin | Source
"Nevermore" (1897) by Paul Gauguin
"Nevermore" (1897) by Paul Gauguin | Source

"I have tried to vindicate the right to dare anything."

~ Paul Gauguin

Gauguin's art and painting career

Gauguin's independence in painting and his rejection of centuries old principles of Western art probably are the result of his lack of training in art at all. Everything he learned he mostly self-taught himself.

He originally painted Impressionist landscapes, still life's and interiors and was greatly influenced by Camille Pissaro and Paul Cezanne. In fact he occasionally painted with them. Gauguin picked-up and adapted Cezanne's parallel constructive brush strokes.

But, his paintings still showed a preoccupation with dreams, mystery and evocative symbols and revealed the genius of his own artistic inclinations. During this time he also sculpted, carved wood reliefs and objects, and made ceramics.

From 1886-1891, he joined a group of artists at Pont-Aven in Brittany. During these years Gauguin ceaselessly questioned himself and his art. By now, he had rejected Impressionism because he felt "shocked by the needs of probability."

Gauguin believed European painting had become too imitative and lacked symbolic depth. The art of Africa, and Asia seemed to him full of symbolic vigor. It was also the vogue in Europe for the art of other cultures, especially that of Japan.

When in Brittany, he experienced an epiphany in his art. He painted The Vision After the Sermon (1888) when he observed some Breton peasant women rapt in silence and prayer. The women seemed winged to him with the weird shapes of their coiffe head-dresses. To paint this Gauguin dropped the Cezanne brushstrokes he was using and changed to using broad, matte fields of non-naturalistic color to express the visions of the Breton peasant women.

In this painting Gauguin painted with great influence of Japanese art in the schematic composition, the flat fields of unbroken shadowless color and the exploitation of the silhouettes he used in his painting. All this was borrowed from the Japanese and began his time of symbolist art.

Also, during this time, his art took a bend in the direction of Cloisonne. The use of heavy outline filled with pure color in his paintings is reminiscent of medieval enamel work known as cloisonne. This is represented in his painting, The Yellow Christ (1889).

Gauguin paid little attention to classical perspectives and boldly eliminated subtle gradations of color. His paintings evolved in which neither form nor color predominated but each had an equal role.

Color took on a symbolic and emotional significance in his paintings; a sort of spiritual dimension. Gauguin's paintings became an art of imaginative concept rather than analytical observation. It was art as abstraction.

His Tahitian paintings are probably his most popular and for which he is most famous. He fled to Tahiti in search of primitive values and simplicity hearkening back to his Peruvian ancestry.

These paintings have a mysterious, dreamy subject matter and offer an escape to a golden primitive land. Many of these paintings exhibit a serenity but at the same time are profoundly melancholy.

Gauguin was the first to paint in the Primitive movement and he was intrigued by the wildness and stark power embodied in these faraway places. He was inspired and motivated by the raw power and simplicity of these primitive cultures.

In Tahiti, Gauguin believed he could escape the sophisticated theorizing and the material corruption and complication of the Western civilization. Here he could paint the simplicity of the Tahitian life.

In his painting, Spirit of the Dead (1892) he moved away from clear colored boldly lined art of his Breton days and moved toward conventional composition and modeling, but with a rich exotic context.

Gauguin became fascinated with Polynesian mythology and ancestor figures, but imposed his own motifs in his imagery.

In his painting, Nevermore (1897) the naked girl exudes a rich tropical warmth and a mood of superstitious dread. He used eerie, dusky colors deliberately to give the tone and image he wanted. And, yes, the title of this painting is a nod to Edgar Allan Poe whom Gauguin admired.

Because Gauguin sided with the native people and their simplicity of life on the island of Tahiti, he frequently clashed with the colonial authorities and with the Catholic Church. Because of this, he left Tahiti and moved on to the Marquesas Islands, also in the French Polynesia.

It was here that he painted what is considered by critics as his materpiece painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). He worked on it "feverishly day and night" as it was to represent the "culmination of his artistry." It was intended as his spiritual last testament and is his most ambitious painting.


Source: Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. Bounty Books: 2004.

Examples of His Tahitian paintings

"Tahitian Women on the Beach" 1891 by Paul Gauguin
"Tahitian Women on the Beach" 1891 by Paul Gauguin | Source
"Two Tahitian Women" (1899) by Paul Gauguin
"Two Tahitian Women" (1899) by Paul Gauguin | Source
"The Seed of the Areoi" (1892) by Paul Gauguin.  The Museum of Modern Art, New York City
"The Seed of the Areoi" (1892) by Paul Gauguin. The Museum of Modern Art, New York City | Source

Gauguin's Tahitian paintings and the voices of the Tahitian Choir

© 2013 Suzette Walker suzettetaos

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      One of my favorite artists. Thank you for a great mini-bio and review. I totally enjoyed this one.

    • suzettenaples profile image
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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Bill: So glad you enjoyed this and he is your favorite artists. He is so unusual and I like him because he can't really be labeled or categorized and we are such a society of labeling. LOL Thanks so much for the visit and for your comments. Most appreciated.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 3 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I love the paintings of the Tahitian women.

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Sherry: I have always loved his Tahitian paintings also. They are bold and beautiful and primitive and do express the simplicity of life. Thanks so much for your comments and for your visit.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Wow, suzzette, I really enjoyed this interesting hub here and the artist, Paul Gauguin, you have featured is phenomenal. His paintings are stunning and so different.

      Up and more and sharing

      Have a great Thanksgiving, if I do not see or read you before then, but at the rate you are publishing, I may very well see you a couple more times before Turkey Day,

      Faith Reaper

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 3 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      As it happens, I am reading Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals. He was a very interesting person who starved for his art. The mind in search of beauty is subjected to many tribulations.

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thanks, Faith. So glad you enjoyed this hub. There are certain artists I greatly admire and have tried to highlight them here in hubs. Thanks for reading and your lovely comments. You and you family have a great and Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy those beautiful granddaughters and grandsons you have. Your are definitely blessed!

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Very interesting Mike. You might want to do a hub on that. I have never read his journals, but I have read that his time on the islands was notorious because of all the sexual escapades he engage in. Must be interesting reading. LOL Yes, he was in search of true beauty and also trying to escape what he considered the inauthentic culture and society and I don't know if he ever found the peace and serenity he sought. He seemed to be dealing with some inner demons. But, he created some great paintings. Thanks so much for reading and for your comments. Most appreciated.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent post. You have created a live picture of a great artist

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      MG: Thank you so much and I appreciate your comments. He is an imaginative and creative artist and I hope I did him justice. Thanks so much for your visit.

    • ocfireflies profile image

      ocfireflies 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Suzette,

      Another standing ovation. Thank you for introducing me to a new artist and showing me example of his extraordinary talent.

      Wishing you the best,

      Kim

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Kim: And thank you for reading and for your kind and thoughtful comments. I am glad you have discovered a new artist. Thanks so much for your interesting and I wish you a great and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      So interesting Suzette and told in your own natural way as always. Voted up.

      Eddy.

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Eddy: Thank you so much for your kind comments and vote. I appreciate your visit and I hope you have a great week.

    • Imogen French profile image

      Imogen French 3 years ago from Southwest England

      I love Gauguin's paintings, especially the Tahitian ones. Lovely hub :-)

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Imogen: Thank you so much for reading and viewing this hub. I am so pleased you enjoyed it especially the Tahitian paintings - they are my favorite ones also. He captures the essence of the island people so well.

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 18 months ago from Manila, Philippines

      Hi, Ms. Suzette. I don't really appreciate much of Gauguin's symbolic art, but I do like his paintings of the Tahitian people.

      I didn't realize that Gauguin and Van Gogh fought constantly to the point that the latter had to cut off his ear lobe in frustration. What a bizzare thing to do! Well, I guess that only shows how eccentric artists can at times be.

      Informative hub, Ms. Suzette. Good one!

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 17 months ago from Taos, NM

      Charito: Thanks you so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. Yes his Tahitian paintings are my favorite of his also. What a tempestuous relationships Van Gogh and Gauguin had. As you said, they were eccentric.

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 14 months ago from Australia

      A fascinating article about an interesting artist. Congratulaions on HOTD

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 14 months ago from Orlando, FL

      Hi Suzette, This is a fabulous and interesting hub!! Congrats on HOTD!!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 14 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      Suzette, this was real interesting to know about Gauguin. I believe he was one of my mother's favorite artists. I don't recall. Congrats on HOTD!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 14 months ago from Chicago Area

      Truly one of my fave artists! Great synopsis of his body of work. Happy New Year and congrats on Hub of the Day!

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 13 months ago from Taos, NM

      Anne: Thank you so much for your comments. He is one of the fascinating artists from that time period. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this.

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 13 months ago from Taos, NM

      Linda, thanks so much for stopping by to read this and I am glad you enjoyed it. The HOTD was a surprise to me!

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 13 months ago from Taos, NM

      Kristin: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this hub. I was pleasantly surprised by the HOTD. I love his paintings, especially the Tahitian ones. I just noticed you are from Northeast Ohio. Where exactly are you located? I am living in Cuyahoga Falls at the moment.

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      Suzette Walker suzettetaos 13 months ago from Taos, NM

      heidi: Happy New Year to you also. Thanks for reading my hub and I am glad you enjoyed it. He is one of my favorite artists also. This was a labor of love. lol!

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