Biography of Paul
(Eugene Henri) Paul Gauguin was a French
post-impressionist painter whose lush color, flat two-dimensional
forms, and subject matter helped form the basis of modern
art. Gauguin was born in Paris on June 7, 1848, into
a liberal middle-class family. After an adventurous
early life, including a four-year stay in Peru with
his family and a stint in the French merchant marine,
he became a successful Parisian stockbroker, settling
into a comfortable bourgeois existence with his wife
and five children.
In 1874, after meeting the artist Camille
Pissarro and viewing the first impressionist exhibition,
he became a collector and amateur painter. He exhibited
with the impressionists in 1876, 1880, 1881, 1882, and
1886. In 1883 he gave up his secure existence to devote
himself to painting; his wife and children, without
adequate subsistence, were forced to return to her family.
From 1886 to 1891 Gauguin lived mainly in rural Brittany,
where he was the center of a small group of experimental
painters known as the school of Pont-Aven. Under the
influence of the painter Émile Bernard, Gauguin
turned away from impressionism and adapted a less naturalistic
style, which he called synthetism. He found his inspiration
in the art of indigenous peoples, in medieval stained
glass, and in Japanese prints; he was introduced to
Japanese prints by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh
when they spent two months together in Arles, in the
south of France, in 1888.
Gauguin's new style was characterized
by the use of large flat areas of nonnaturalistic color,
as in Yellow Christ. In 1891, ruined and in debt, Gauguin
sailed for the South Seas to escape European civilization
and "everything that is artificial and conventional."
Except for one visit to France from 1893 to 1895, he
remained in the Tropics for the rest of his life, first
in Tahiti and later in the Marquesas Islands. The essential
characteristics of his style changed little in the South
Seas; he retained the qualities of expressive color,
denial of perspective, and thick, flat forms. Under
the influence of the tropical setting and Polynesian
culture, however, Gauguin's paintings became more powerful,
while the subject matter became more distinctive, the
scale larger, and the compositions more simplified.
His subjects ranged from scenes of ordinary life, such
as Tahitian Women, or On the Beach, to brooding scenes
of superstitious dread, such as Spirit of the Deadwatching.
His masterpiece was the monumental allegory Where Do
We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? which
he painted shortly before his failed suicide attempt.
A modest stipend from a Parisian art dealer sustained
him until his death at Atuana in Marquesas on May 9,
1903. Gauguin's bold experiments in coloring led directly
to the 20th-century Fauvist style in modern art. His
strong modeling influenced the Norwegian artist Edvard
Munch and the later expressionist school.
the Paul Gauguin Gallery >>