The Life and Art of Paul Gauguin

French painter Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 and then moved to Peru with his family when he was only three years old. Growing up in Peru provided much excitement and had a great impact on him as little boy. When he turned 17, he joined the Navy and went to sea for about six years. He returned to France after his voyages, more mature and filled with impressions of strange and beautiful lands.

paulgauguinfaaturuma1891nelsonamuseumofart.jpg He did not immediately become an artist. He chose to settle in Paris and learn to become a stockbroker. At 35, much to his family surprise, Paul gave up his career to devote his life to painting in order to show the simple beauty he saw in the lives of primitive peoples. He was quite accustomed to success and believed that he would succeed in painting. Unfortunately, his wife saw it as an unnecessary indulgence and never forgave him for a “selfish” decision. Years later, the couple separated.

Paul had always enjoyed the art of the French artists known as the impressionists. He took up painting right away and in 1818 he exhibited his works with other impressionists. However, the reality of living an artist’s life shocked Gauguin. He enjoyed his former comforts so much that he had difficulty adjusting to his new life in poverty. By 1886, the expense and pressure of city life had become so demanding that Gauguin decided to leave Paris and live in an artist’s colony in Brittany. After a year, he decided to travel to Panama where he worked as a laborer. Then he went to the tropics, to Martinique, where he lived and painted in freedom. However, after a year of living in Martinique, Gauguin was forced to return to Brittany, penniless and quite ill.

In October, 1888 he visited another famous artist, Vincent van Gogh, in the latter’s home in Arles, France. Gauguin’s stay with Van Gogh proved to be a powerful collaboration of sorts; it was said that they frequently disagreed and were distressing to live with. On good days, however, they managed to learn from each other and produced some of their best work during these times. It is said that Gauguin returned to Paris after Van Gogh’s “incident”. Gauguin slowly broke away form the impressionist movement and painted “Vision after the Sermon”, where he attempted to externalize the feelings of his subjects. This painting is important in his career because it ushered in a new style that is now called “Symbolism”.

However, it was a combination of the beautiful surroundings of Brittany and his exotic voyages that led them to develop his own unique style. Gauguin devoted his time painting portraits, landscapes and still lifes as simple forms in pure and intense colors surrounded by black outlines. Many critics remark that the graceful mess and simplicity of the painting is communicating the artist’s strongest feelings towards the exotic and the natural.

In 1891, Gauguin saved enough money to go to the primitive South Sea island of Tahiti. At first, the artist was extremely happy in the midst of the forests, the strange flora and fauna and the island’s beautiful people. He decided to stay and share the simple life of the natives from there on. However, throughout his stay, Gauguin was tormented by severe depression and tried to battle drug addiction.

Most of Gauguin’s paintings capture the beauty of Tahitian culture and its women, but seemed to show that the artist was really not completely happy nor understood in this primitive society. After many years of poverty and sickness, Gauguin died from heart failure, alone and unaware of the mark his art would later make on the 20th century.

By Michael Russell

Michael Russell: Your Independent guide to Arts

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