Paul Gauguin, who seemed to be running away to an “elsewhere,” lived an extraordinary life. In doing so, he helped craft an almost mythological image of himself, an image that inspired the title of a current exhibit at the National Gallery of Art: “Gauguin: Maker of Myth.” In writing about it for the New York Times, Holland Cotter characterized the artist as “a dreadful man who made some beautiful art.” Perhaps because of this, much has been written about Gauguin by art historians, critics, novelists, biographers (including his son) and himself (in his memoirs); even a couple of operas. All have tried to understand how an untrained former sailor, stockbroker and world traveler could create such a remarkable body of work. Perhaps the most likely explanation comes from the artist himself: “My life has always been very restless and uneven. In me [are] a great many mixtures.”
Born in 1848, he had an unconventional ancestry. A grandmother from Peru was an early French feminist; his father was an outspoken journalist who in 1849 fled Paris for Lima with his family, and died during the voyage. The family stayed on in Peru, living with an eccentric and powerful great-uncle, the country’s last Spanish viceroy. When Gauguin was six, the family returned to France. As one biographer noted, “in his exotic and restless childhood lies the explanation for the adult painter’s attraction to distant lands.”
Gauguin enlisted in the French merchant navy at 17, and spent the next six years at sea. By 1872, he was a Parisian stockbroker with a secure bourgeois life and a Danish wife (they had five children over the course of 10 years). During this time, he also began dabbling in art, both as a collector and an amateur Sunday-afternoon painter. His star rose quickly. In 1874, he met Camille Pissarro, and by ’76, his work was exhibited with other artists; three years later, Degas and Pissarro invited him to show his work in the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition. Throughout this time, Gauguin continued to be employed as a stockbroker. In 1883, he abandoned his career after a market crash and became a full-time artist, a decision not endorsed by his wife.
He moved to Brittany (sans family), where many artists had flocked. Here, he distanced himself from the Impressionists—too imitative for him— and set out to forge a new approach, tapping into a rural, more “primitive” culture. Gauguin experimented with a style called “Synthétisme,” which emphasized two-dimensional, flat, fundamental patterns. An early example of this can be seen in Harvest: Le Pouldu, which was said to feature Gauguin’s own dog. He was also influenced by Emile Bernard’s “Cloisonnism”— flat areas of color with bold outlines (see Still Life with Three Puppies). Throughout his experimentation with different compositional styles, he remained obsessed with his favorite theme: the unity of man and nature. That focus led him to adopt (some say “create”) the Primitivism style that reached its apogee in his work from Tahiti.
Not content with his progress within the confines of the French art world, and seeking “to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilization … to produce something new … to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind,” he moved to Tahiti in 1891. Many of the paintings for which he is best known followed. Often, as with his earlier work, they included dogs, such as in Arearea and Tahitian Pastorals. But his masterpiece, painted in 1897–98, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, best expresses his struggles with the fundamental meaning of existence. By then syphilitic, penniless and suicidal, Gauguin created this work after receiving news of his daughter’s death. It was his largest piece — painted on sackcloth strips that he had stitched together — and he instructed that it be read from right to left; the black dog at the far right, above the infant, was said to represent the artist.
He died in 1903, already a legend to the avant-garde back in Paris, but this recognition was unbeknownst to him.