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Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903)





Paul Gauguin


Birth name Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin

Born 7 June 1848

Died 8 May 1903

Nationality French

Movement Post-Impressionism


Gauguin was conscious of his originality early in his career. Gauguin did not start painting until comparatively late in life. In 1865 he went into the navy, where he remained till 1871, when he left to join a firm of stockbrokers, with the Bertin Bank. He began collecting pictures by young Impressionists painters, but did not show anything himself until 1876, when he had a picture in the Salon. He showed paintings in the last four Impressionists exhibitions, between 1880 and 1886 , and during this period the influence of Claude Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro is very noticeable, as in The Seine at the Pont d’Iena (1875) and  Entrance to a village (1884). But he was hankering after something more primitive, and Brittany, with its ancient granite crosses and sense of remoteness, attracted him. In 1886 he stayed at Pont-Aven from June to November, and there met Emile Bernard.  After a short visit to Martinique, Gauguin went back to Brittany where he met Emile Bernard again.  Bernard had just completed his Breton women in a meadow at Saint-Briac, and it was not longer after, in August, that Gauguin painted his famous picture Vision after the sermon, or Jacob’s struggle with the Angel, which became the manifesto for the new development in painting. The two artists claimed to have found a new form of art, “synthetism” and a new technique with they called “cloisonnisme” (“partitionism”), so leading on to Symbolism in painting. Later on, Maurice Denis declared that “synthetism does not necessarily mean simplifying in the sense of leaving out various parts of thing, but rather simplifying in the sense of making it easy to understand”.
A complete and definite break with impressionism encouraged Gauguin to pint a whole series of very decorative canvases, with paint applied in broad flat sweeps, and detail suggested rather than defined; the general impression in something like stage scenery. Two examples are Still life at the fete Gloanec and Decorative landscape.  In October 1888 he went to see van Gogh at Arles and there painted several pictures in an increasingly bold style, like Landscape at Arles and Les Alyscamps.  Van Gogh found new manner disconcerting and this let to disagreement between two artists. In the course of one heated argument, after his first bout of insanity, van Gogh cut of his own ear with a razor. In the early part 1889, Gauguin showed seventeen pictures at the café Volpini at an exhibition of Impressionists and Synthetist art. He then paid another visit to Brittany, going first to Pont-Aven and then to Le Pouldu near Quimperle, where he stayed in a small inn kept by Marie Henry, known as Marie Poupee, from April 1889 to November 1890. His painting here tended to be more decorative and primitive in stile than ever, emphasising his ideas rather that pure visual quality – for instance in The Yellow Christ (1889), La Belle Angele (1889), Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889), Self portrait with the yellow Christ (c. 1890).  After returning to Paris, he painted The Awakening of Spring (1890-1891) and Nirvana, or Portrait of Meyer de Haan, a Dutch painter (1890).
With the aim of leaving  the civilization behind he set off for Tahiti on 4 April 1891 and stayed until July 1893. There he found a primitive world that seemed to resolve at least some of his problems. He did not find a fresh vision of nature, but he found the symbols it produced; not just people with picturesque costumes, but simple folk whose way of life was primitive and noble. Many of Gauguin’s paintings during this period show a new approach to art, which has strongly influenced certain tendencies in modern panting. Gauguin’s decorative, stylised work, his spirit of synthesis and his pure, vibrant colours applied in broad flat surfaces foreshadowed much that we find in the art of Henry Matisse  and his circle.  (Orana Maria; I Rarote oviri;  When are you getting married).
Gauguin’s approach was far from being objective and he was not at all interested in narrative and picturesque subject.  Instead he attained a fresh simplicity of vision, mysterious  and wonderfully sculptural in its nobility and harmony.
Gauguin returned to France a sick man, in August 1893, and henceforth spent his time between Paris and Brittany. He also organised an exhibition of his Tahiti paintings at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. However he could not settle in France, and in July 1895 went back to Tahiti. He became ill again, felt homesick and wretched, and 1898 made a suicide attempt in a state of deep depression. In spite of all this he did not give up working, in fact his creative energy seemed greater than ever. He produced drawings, engravings, sculpture, ceramics and paintings as well as writing. His pictures of that period are Nave, Nave, Mahana: wonderful days; The day of God; Nevermore.
To understand Gauguin and his art one must refer above all to the Famous document he produced in collaboration with Charles Morice, during the winter of 1893-1894, entitled Noa-Noa.
In August 1901 Gauguin left Tahiti for Dominica, one of the Marquesas Islands. His health was failing but he still retaining his enthusiasm for work. He died on 8 May 1903, tormented and harassed by debts, illness and bureaucratic worries.
Gauguin, like the Impressionists, was very little appreciated by most of his contemporaries. People found it hard to understand his new method of painting and his technique  which reacted so violently against the theories prevalent at the time.  Now we have to admit that Gauguin was originator of  “Modern Style” and much number of great contemporary painters owe to Gauguin.

Based on Phaidon encyclopedia of Impressionism, Maurice Serullaz, Phaidon, 1978



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