Paul Gauguin: A Mythic Life in Painting
The Ultimate Global Traveler
  • Harvest: Le Pouldu 1890
  • Still Life With Three Puppies 1888
  • Tahitian Pastorals1892
  • Self-Portrait with Portrait of Bernard 1888
  • Arearea (Joyfulness) 1892(1892-12)
  • D'o
  • Joan of Arc, or Breton girl spinning 1889(1889)
  • I raro te oviri (I) (Under the Pandanus I) 1891
  • Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (II) 1889
  • Haere Pape 1892

Harvest: Le Pouldu
Oil on canvas
28.75 x 36.25 in.
Tate, London
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery in 1966.
Description: Gauguin painted this harvest scene while he was living at Le Pouldu in Brittany. He had been the central figure of a group of painters at the nearby village of Pont-Aven. Then in 1890 he moved to Le Pouldu in search of an even simpler way of life. By this time Gauguin had abandoned his early Impressionist manner. Influenced by folk art and primitive art, he began to use flat areas of color and a distorted perspective in his paintings. The landscape and life of the peasant community inspired some of the most rugged and radically simplified works of his career. The dog in this painting was said to belong to the artist.

(Adapted From the display caption September 2004)

Still Life With Three Puppies
Oil on wood
36.1 x 24.6 in.
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
Museum on Modern Art, New York
Description: When Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies, he was living in Brittany. He abandoned naturalistic depictions and colors, declaring that “art is an abstraction” to be derived “from nature while dreaming before it.” The puppies’ bodies, for example, are outlined in bold blue, and the patterning of their coats mirrors the botanic print of the tablecloth. It is thought that Gauguin drew stylistic inspiration for this painting from children's book illustrations and from Japanese prints, which were introduced to him by his friend and fellow artist Vincent van Gogh that same year.

(Adapted from Museum of Modern Art, New York Web site)

Tahitian Pastorals
34.45 × 44.76 in.
Oil on canvas
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Description: Gauguin initially spent two years in Tahiti (1891-1893), before returning in 1895. This work was painted during that first stay and it captures the idyll of the natural primitive life, a world he was hoping to find in Polynesia. Gauguin’s romantic vision was filled with vivid impressions of the exotic landscape, the natural grace of the islanders, and their mysterious beliefs and rituals. The painting is made up of a combination of pure colors, a rhythmic arrangement of lines and broad areas of color, which suggests a harmonious musical theme.

(Adapted from Hermitage Museum’s Web site)

Self-Portrait with Portrait of Bernard
Oil on canvas
17.72 x 21.65 in.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Description: In 1888 Emile Bernard worked with Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven, in Brittany. Here he produced this self-portrait, which he inscribed with the text “à mon copaing Vincent” and sent to his friend Vincent in Arles. Van Gogh had actually requested a portrait of Gauguin, but Bernard replied that he did not feel confident enough to paint his older, better-known colleague. By way of a compromise he painted this self-portrait in blue and green tints, including Gauguin’s head in the background as a stylized drawing. Van Gogh was enthusiastic about the gift – “a couple of simple tones, a couple of dark lines, but it is [as] elegant as a real, genuine Manet.” Gauguin also sent Van Gogh a self-portrait, which included a portrait of Emile Bernard in the background.

(Adapted from Van Gogh Museum Web site)

Arearea (Joyfulness)
Oil on canvas
29.53 × 37.01 in.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Description: In his Tahitian paintings, Gauguin took his inspiration from what he saw around him, as well as from local stories and ancient religious traditions. Arearea is representative of these works where dream and reality coexist. The painting is one of several Tahitian works exhibited in Paris in November 1893. Unfortunately, this exhibition did not receive the enthusiastic response the artist had hoped for. The titles in Tahitian irritated many of his friends, and the red dog provoked much sarcasm. Nonetheless, Gauguin considered Arearea to be one of his best paintings, and in 1895, he went so far as to buy it back for himself before leaving Europe for good.

(Adapted from Musée d'Orsay, Paris Web site)

D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Oil on canvas
54.76 × 147.48 in.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Tompkins Collection
Bridgeman Art Library
Description: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? addresses Paul Gauguin’s struggle with the meaning of existence. Impoverished spiritually by the death of his daughter, and financially, as evidenced by the gunny sacks that he stitched together for his canvas, Gauguin considered this painting to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. The work is meant to be read right to left with the dog representing Gauguin. The nearby baby signifies the beginning of life. The figure whose back is turned to the viewer could be understood as the beginning of an individual's realization of gender. The center figure reaching for an apple represents Eve. Monumental in size, complex in composition and meaning, this masterful work epitomizes Gauguin’s depth as an artist.

(Adapted from NYU Literature, Arts and Medicine Database and Wikipedia.com)

Joan of Arc, or Breton girl spinning
Fresco in wooden support 52.76 × 24.76 in.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Description: Gauguin completed this work, one of his only compositions in fresco, in 1889 for the decoration of Marie Henry's seaside inn, La Buvette de la Plage, at Le Pouldu on the coast of Brittany. When Henry sold her inn, the dining room murals were covered by wallpaper for nearly thirty years. A young American student and painter, Abraham Rattner, noticed the brilliantly colored fresco beneath a torn piece of the wallpaper in 1924. Upon making the discovery of Gauguin’s “lost masterpiece” Rattner purchased the entire wall from the owner. The fresco was later restored, fortified and sent to Paris.

(Adapted from the Van Gogh Museum Web site)

I raro te oviri (I) (Under the Pandanus I)
Oil on canvas
26.77 × 35.43 in
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas
Description: In Tahiti, Gauguin found both the real and psychological distance to pursue his radical aesthetic goal of an art that does not copy nature. In Under the Pandanus, Gauguin suppressed spatial illusionism and instead constructed the landscape with horizontal bands of colors which reinforce the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The black dog at the center of the composition seems to transcend mere genre, suggesting the animalistic or barbaric qualities that Gauguin imagined he had discovered in the South Pacific. Gauguin clearly prized this painting. He adopted its imagery in a woodcut and for a monotype, which he used as the frontispiece to his semi-autobiographical account of his first Tahitian journey, Noa Noa.

(Adapted from Dallas Museam of Art Web site)

Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (II)
Oil on canvas
44.49 × 36.22 in
Národní galerie v Praze, Prague
Description: This work was produced in response to the painting by Gustave Courbet that Gauguin saw in the Musse Fabre in Montpellier in December 1888. That subject of inspiration was Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, a painting that was part of the Alfred Bruyas collection, assembled by one the foremost contemporary art collectors of the day. The canvas shows Courbet being met by Bruyas, his greatest patron, and his servant, on the road to Montpellier. Gauguin’s version of the painting reimagines himself in a similar “meeting” with a dose of irony—in place of the wealthy art collector is a poor Breton woman.

(Adapted from Gauguin (Colour Library)

Haere Pape
Oil on canvas
35.91 × 26.14 in
The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania
Description: An example of Gauguin’s unique and brilliant color palette whose influence would be seen a decade later in the paintings of Matisse, Derain and in the style of les Fauves (French for “the wild beasts”). An approach to painting that emphasized painterly qualities and strong color over the representational values retained by Impressionism.

(Adapted from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Web site)

This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011