Paul Gauguin Essay

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, in full Eugene-Henri-Paul Gauguin, French painter, printmaker, and sculptor who sought to achieve a "primitive" expression of spiritual and emotional states in his work. The artist, whose work has been categorized as Post-Impressionist, Synthetist, and Symbolist, is particularly well known for his creative relationship with Van Gogh, as well as for his self-imposed exile in Tahiti, French Polynesia. His artistic experiments influenced many avant-garde developments in the early 20th century.


Gauguin was the son of a journalist from Orleans and a mother of Peruvian descent. After Napoleon III's coup d'etat, Gauguin and his family moved in 1851 to Lima, Peru; four years later, after the death of his father, the family returned to France. At age 17 Gauguin enlisted in the merchant marine, and for six years he sailed around the world. His mother died in 1867, leaving legal guardianship of the family with the businessman Gustave Arosa, who, upon Gauguin's release from the merchant marine, secured a position for him as a stockbroker and introduced him to the Danish woman Mette Sophie Gad, whom Gauguin married in 1873.

Gauguin's artistic leanings were first aroused by Arosa, who had a collection that included the work of Camille Corot, Eugene Delacroix, and Jean-Francois Millet, and by a fellow stockbroker, Emile Schuffenecker, with whom he started painting. Gauguin soon began to receive artistic instruction and to frequent a studio where he could draw from a model. In 1876 his Landscape at Viroflay was accepted for the official annual exhibition in France, the Salon. He developed a taste for the contemporary avant-garde movement of Impressionism, and between 1876 and 1881 he assembled a personal collection of paintings by such figures as Edouard Manet, Cezanne, Camille Pissarro, Monet, and Johan Barthold Jongkind.

Gauguin met Pissarro in about 1875 and began to study under the supportive older artist, at first struggling to master the techniques of painting and drawing. In 1880 he was included in the fifth Impressionist exhibition, an invitation that was repeated in 1881 and 1882. He spent holidays painting with Pissarro and Cezanne and began to make visible progress. During this period he also entered a social circle of avant-garde artists that included Manet, Degas, and Renoir.

Gauguin lost his job when the French stock market crashed in 1882, an occurrence he saw as a positive development, because it would allow him to "paint every day." In an attempt to support his family, he unsuccessfully sought employment with art dealers, while continuing to travel to the countryside to paint with Pissarro. In 1884 he moved his family to Rouen, France, and took odd jobs, but by the end of the year, the family moved to Denmark, seeking the support of Mette's family. Without employment, Gauguin was free to pursue his art, but he faced the disapproval of his wife's family; late in 1885 he returned with his eldest son to Paris.

Gauguin participated in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886, showing 19 paintings and a carved wood relief. His own works won little attention, however, overshadowed by Georges Seurat's enormous A Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte-1884 (1884-86). Frustrated and destitute, Gauguin began to make ceramic vessels for sale, and that summer he made a trip to Pont-Aven in the Brittany region of France, seeking a simpler and more frugal life. After a harsh winter there, Gauguin sailed to the French Caribbean island of Martinique with the painter Charles Laval in April 1887, intending to "live like a savage."

His works painted on Martinique, such as Tropical Vegetation (1887) and By the Sea (1887), reveal his increasing departure from Impressionist technique during this period, as he was now working with blocks of colour in large, unmodulated planes. Upon his return to France late in 1887, Gauguin affected an exotic identity, pointing to his Peruvian ancestry as a element of "primitivism" in his own nature and artistic vision.

Early maturity

In the summer of 1888 Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven, searching for what he called "a reasoned and frank return to the beginning, that is to say, to primitive art." He was joined there by young painters, including Emile Bernard and Paul Serusier, who also were seeking a more direct expression in their painting. Gauguin achieved a step towards this ideal in the seminal Vision After the Sermon (1888), a painting in which he used broad planes of colour, clear outlines, and simplified forms. Gauguin coined the term "Synthetism" to describe his style during this period, referring to the synthesis of his paintings' formal elements with the idea or emotion they conveyed.

Gauguin acted as a mentor to many of the artists who assembled in Pont-Aven, urging them to rely more upon feeling than upon the direct observation associated with Impressionism. Indeed, he advised: "Don't copy too much after nature. Art is an abstraction: extract from nature while dreaming before it and concentrate more on creating than on the final result." Gauguin and the artists around him, who became known as the Pont-Aven school, began to be decorative in the overall compositions and harmonies of their paintings. Gauguin no longer used line and colour to replicate an actual scene, as he had as an Impressionist, but rather explored the capacity of those pictorial means to induce a particular feeling in the viewer.

Late in October 1888 Gauguin traveled to Arles, in the south of France, to stay with Van Gogh (partly as a favour to van Gogh's brother, Theo, an art dealer who had agreed to represent him). Early that year, van Gogh had moved to Arles, hoping to found the "Studio of the South," where like-minded painters would gather to create a new, personally expressive art. However, as soon as Gauguin arrived, the two volatile artists often engaged in heated exchanges about art's purpose. The style of the two men's work from this period has been classified as Postimpressionism because it shows an individual, personal development of Impressionism's use of colour, brushstroke, and non-traditional subject matter.

For example, Gauguin's Old Women of Arles (1888) portrays a group of women moving through a flattened, arbitrarily conceived landscape in a solemn procession. As in much of his work from this period, Gauguin applied thick paint in a heavy manner to raw canvas; in his rough technique and in the subject matter of religious peasants, the artist found something approaching his burgeoning "primitive" ideal. Gauguin had planned to remain in Arles through the spring, but his relationship with van Gogh grew even more tumultuous. After what Gauguin claimed was an attempt to attack him with a razor, van Gogh mutilated his own left ear. Gauguin then left for Paris after a stay of only two months.

For the next several years, Gauguin alternated between living in Paris and Brittany. In Paris he became acquainted with the avant-garde literary circles of Symbolist poets such as Stephane Mallarme, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. These poets, who advocated abandoning traditional forms in order to embody inner emotional and spiritual life, saw their equivalent in the visual arts in the work of Gauguin. In a famous essay in the Mercure de France in 1891, the critic Albert Aurier declared Gauguin to be the leader of a group of Symbolist artists, and he defined his work as "ideational, symbolic, synthetic, subjective, and decorative."

After finding Pont-Aven spoiled by tourists, Gauguin relocated to the remote village of Le Pouldu. There, in a heightened pursuit of raw expression, he began to focus upon the ancient monuments of medieval religion, crosses, and calvaries, incorporating their simple, rigid forms into his compositions, as seen in The Yellow Christ (1889). While such works built upon the lessons of colour and brushstroke he learned from French Impressionism, they rejected the lessons of perspectival space that had been developed in Western art since the Renaissance.

He expressed his distaste for the corruption he saw in contemporary Western civilization in the carved and painted wood relief Be in Love and You Will Be Happy (1889), in which a figure in the upper left, crouching to hide her body, was meant to represent Paris as, in his words, a "rotten Babylon." As such works suggest, Gauguin began to long for a more removed environment in which to work. After considering and rejecting northern Vietnam and Madagascar, he applied for a grant from the French government to travel to Tahiti.


Gauguin arrived in Papeete in June 1891. He came with a romantic image of Tahiti as an untouched paradise, derived in part from Pierre Loti's novel Le Mariage de Loti (1880). Disappointed by the extent to which French colonization had actually corrupted Tahiti, he attempted to immerse himself in what he believed were the authentic aspects of the culture. He employed Tahitian titles, such as Fatata te miti (1892; "Near the Sea") and Manao tupapau (1892; "The Spirit of the Dead Watching"), used Oceanic iconography, and portrayed idyllic landscapes and suggestive spiritual settings. In an attempt to further remove himself from inherited Western conventions, Gauguin emulated Oceanic traditions in his sculptures and woodcuts from this period, which he gave a deliberately rough-hewn look.

Gauguin returned to France in July 1893, believing that his new work would bring him the success that had so long eluded him. More so than ever, the outspoken artist affected the persona of an exotic outsider, carrying on a famous affair with a woman known as "Anna the Javanese." In 1894 he conceived a plan to publish a book of his impressions of Tahiti, illustrated with his own woodcuts, titled Noa Noa. This project and a one-man exhibit at the gallery of Paul Durand-Ruel met with little acceptance, however, and in July 1895 he left France for Tahiti for the final time.

Before the 1890s Gauguin flattened his imagery with sometimes unsuccessful results, but throughout that decade his "primitivism" became less forced. The influences of J.-A.-D. Ingres and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes led him to create increasingly rounded and modeled forms and a more sinuous line; as a result, Gauguin's images became more luxuriant and more naturally poetic as he developed marvelously orchestrated tonal harmonies. He achieved the consummate expression of his developing vision in 1897 in his chief Tahitian work, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). An enormous contemplation of life and death told through a series of figures, beginning with a baby and ending with a shriveled old woman, the work is surrounded by a dreamlike, poetic aura that is extraordinarily powerful.

Increasingly disgusted with the rising Western influence in the French colony, Gauguin again sought a more remote environment, this time on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he moved in September 1901. He purchased land there and, with the help of his neighbours, he built a home that he called "the house of pleasure." Conceived as a total work of art decorated with elaborately carved friezes, the house was possibly inspired by Maori works he had seen in Auckland, New Zealand. By 1902 an advanced case of syphilis restricted his mobility, and he concentrated his remaining energy on drawing and writing, especially his memoir, Avant et apres. After a quarrel with French authorities, he considered moving again, this time to Spain, but his declining health and a pending lawsuit prohibited any change. He died alone in his "house of pleasure."


Gauguin's influence was immense and varied. His legacy rests partly in his dramatic decision to reject the materialism of contemporary culture in favour of a more spiritual, unfettered lifestyle. It also rests in his tireless experimentation. Scholars have long identified him with a range of stylistic movements, and the challenge of defining his oeuvre, particularly the late work, attests to the uniqueness of his vision. Along with the work of his great contemporaries, Cezanne and Van Gogh, Gauguin's innovations inspired a whole generation of artists. In 1889-90 many of the young followers who had gathered around him at Pont-Aven utilized Gauguin's ideas to form the Nabis group.

The Norwegian painter Munch owed much to Gauguin's use of line, and the painters of the Fauve group - Matisse in particular - profited from his use of colour in their own daring compositions. In Germany, too, Gauguin's influence was strong in the work of German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Gauguin's use of Oceanic iconography and his stylistic simplifications greatly affected the young Pablo Picasso, inspiring his own appreciation of African art and hence the evolution of Cubism. In this way, through both his stylistic advances and his rejection of empirical representation in favour of conceptual representation, Gauguin helped open the door to the development of 20th-century art.

© D. C., E. B.

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Spotlight Essay: Paul Gauguin, Te Atua (The Gods), 1899
September 2016

Elizabeth C. Childs
Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History and chair of the Department of Art History & Archaeology, Washington University in St. Louis

Paul Gauguin wrestled with what he regarded as the limitations of easel painting. Even as he painted canvases with the Paris art market in mind, he simultaneously explored the expressive potential of many mediums, including printmaking, ceramics, drawing, and wood carving. His experiments in printmaking, begun in 1889, include work in etching, zincography, lithography, and monotype, but his most sustained engagement came with woodblock prints. Gauguin’s innovations in woodcut stand out both for their expressive and simplified forms and for the varying effects he achieved through the use of a variety of papers, inks, and printing and mounting techniques.

Gauguin valued prints as a vehicle to distribute his art to what he believed would be a growing circle of collectors, critics, and fellow artists. Exemplifying this aspiration is Te Atua, one of a series of fourteen woodcuts he made in Tahiti between 1898 and 1899. These are generally referred to as the Vollard suite, as he sent some thirty sets of them to Ambroise Vollard in 1900 in hopes that the entrepreneurial art dealer would promote them in Paris.1 He also intended that some could be exhibited alongside his paintings at the upcoming Exposition Universelle of 1900, a plan that did not come to fruition.

Gauguin printed Te Atua in black ink on a sheet of japan paper, a tissue-thin paper used in European printmaking since the time of Rembrandt, which was later laid down on a heavier page of watercolor paper.2 It is significant that he printed this series on japan paper. Whereas Gauguin had chosen a heavy commercial paper for his Volpini suite of zincographs in 1889,3 he selected for the Vollard series a fine-art paper, one that he would have had to import to Tahiti from France. Thus, even in his last years in Tahiti, as Gauguin complained of the islands’ colonial modernity and was preparing to retreat to the more remote Marquesas Islands, he kept the target audience of a Parisian art clientele clearly in mind.

The vertical stacking of motifs, capped by a framing arch, and the central position of its bold inscription suggest that this may be the title image in the series.4 In a narrow horizontal band at the top center, Gauguin’s initials, carved in a cartouche, claim authorship; next appear the Tahitian words Te Atua, meaning “the gods.”5 In the title and in the imagery that surrounds it, Gauguin introduced some of the central concerns of the Vollard suite: the subjects of god(s), veneration, and the enigmas of religious symbolism. The imagery is a rich fusion of Christian, Polynesian, Buddhist, and indeterminate referents, indicating the global span of his religious interests.

The scene is compressed in a friezelike shallow space under the expansive framing arch, inscribed with small cross or star forms that create the illusion of a vault of the heavens. This frame is reminiscent of the rounded vaults and arches of Romanesque churches, an earlier “primitive” form within Gauguin’s own French Catholic tradition. The arch frames a decidedly non-French figure, however—a monumental head that in its facial features may be read, albeit ambiguously, as Polynesian. If so, one literate with the Tahitian pantheon would readily associate it with Ta’aroa, the supreme creator god. But part of the power of this print is that clear identifications of its imagery are elusive, and the large head, highlighted by flowing white hair and a sober countenance, may also be read as a godhead that declares its authority simply through its iconic profile, monumental scale, and dominant position over the scene that plays out below. Like Gauguin’s Parisian viewers, we may surmise that it is a god without knowing its precise identity.

The scene is bordered at the left by a woman and infant whose halos clearly identify them as the Madonna and Christ Child. The woman bows her head slightly toward the center ground, which is occupied by a figure as grotesque as Mary is graceful.6 This gender-ambiguous deity unites the realms of earth and sky: its impossibly long, curving torso echoes the snake below, while its flowing white hair and bold profile repeat features of the god hovering in the heavens above. The scene invites comparison to the Christian nativity, in which angels and kings pay homage in the stable, but this figure is neither angelic nor Magus-like in countenance; rather, Mary and Jesus confront a being of divine equivalence, perhaps again the Tahitian creator god Ta’aroa, who rules the upper domain of the image. Offering symmetrical balance to Mary, a female figure at far right holds up her hand in a gesture of reverence, or at least in acknowledgment of the extraordinary encounter before her. Gauguin has adapted this pose of veneration from depictions of Buddhist figures in a frieze from the Borobudur temple, Java, known to him via a photograph.7 As he believed (erroneously) that the Polynesian people he lived among had originated from populations in southeastern Asia, Gauguin regarded the adaptation of ancient Buddhist temple reliefs as appropriate to his goal of visualizing the sacred spheres of Polynesia. Such thinking was not derived from anthropological or historical research on his part but rather from a kind of poetic affiliation that he forged between southeastern Asia, as a region whose art, he felt, bore witness to a heightened spirituality, and his current preoccupation with the religious heritage of Tahiti.

A varied animal world further populates the scene and enticingly raises the possibility of animals serving as sacred symbols. A peacock, almost equal in scale to the human figures, strides across the top of the image; the snake writhes in a small pond or field at the bottom. At the lower left corner a small dog or fox curls in a cartouche-like space that suggests a nest or den, and at the right corner a bird resembling a goose assumes a balancing position. None of these animals are likely to have been present in Gauguin’s daily life in Tahiti. Rather, they are derived from religious and classical traditions. The peacock was a long-held Catholic symbol of Christ’s resurrection and more generally of renewal, and the snake is the famous harbinger of evil in the Garden of Eden.8 The fox and bird are more diffcult to pinpoint; they might be derived from folk tales and fables that Gauguin referenced elsewhere in his art, such as the fables of Jean de La Fontaine (which offer numerous tales of foxes, rats, crows, and other animals), but no specific stories are invoked here. The white bird in particular echoes the prominent white bird in the lower left foreground of Gauguin’s monumental painting D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) of 1897–98 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

As we know from Gauguin’s letter of 1898 to the artist George-Daniel de Monfried, the bird in the canvas exemplifies the sheer inadequacy of literal interpretations: it simply “represents the futility of words,” Gauguin writes.9 As in that epic painting, the animals in Te Atua may reflect more generally Gauguin’s philosophical concern over where animals, as our fellow living creatures, fit within religious systems of meaning. In his essay “L’esprit moderne et le Catholicisme” (The Catholic Church and modern times), which he drafted in Tahiti in 1897–98 (and continued to develop until shortly before his death), he quoted a biblical verse from Ecclesiastes (3:21) that queries the fate of the spirits of animals. He also mused in the essay over where and how the soul begins, discarding the idea of any barrier that separates animal and human souls.10 Thus in both his text and his imagery, Gauguin pondered the place of humanity in relation to animal beings and to spiritual and (his own) artistic renewal.

Consonant with his interest in doctrines of theosophy, to which he had at that time been exposed for a decade, Gauguin refused to grant one traditional religious system—especially Catholicism, from his own background—primacy over others. Rather, he set symbols and personages from different world faiths in visual dialogue in an orchid-laden, Edenic landscape that is peacefully inhabited by a diverse cast of gods. Gauguin was reading, and even copying into his essay, passages from the theosophical writings of the popular English spiritualist Gerald Massey.11 Massey’s basic proposal was that all religions owed their origins to ancient myths that had been transmitted and adapted over time and that they all shared common insights into universal truths. Following such thinking, Gauguin found it appropriate to combine Christian, Polynesian, and Buddhist forms in this scene, as the gods of these religions were for him equivalent.

If, as suggested above, Te Atua is the title image in the Vollard series, it can be understood as both a scene of creation (Ta’aroa) and a foundational myth (Jesus). Some of the other prints in the series can be read as following a Christian narrative, if we read them in terms of paradise, temptation, the fall, a flight from Eden, and redemption by Christ through the crucifixion.12 It has been suggested that the scenes in these prints could be lined up in a kind of continuous frieze, so that a paradisiacal world unfolds like a scroll.13 But if we do not seek to establish narrative or a set visual order, and if we consider the sequence of the printed scenes as an interchangeable set of topoi, the series implies a fresh proposition: interchangeability as a conceptual and visual value that foregrounds Gauguin’s belief in the creative process as ongoing and open-ended.14 On a basic formal level he may have been inspired, as Elizabeth Prelinger argues, by the format of myriorama cards, a nineteenth-century parlor game in which a set of cards with different printed landscapes that shared like- scaled border motifs could be laid out by the player in any sequence. The cards could then be reordered at will to create a new scene.15

This kind of poetic flexibility, and indeed this affirmation of the creative power of both the artist and the print collector or viewer, accords well with Gauguin’s embrace of the potential of multiples. By incorporating a new participatory role for the viewer, while at the same time allowing for the power of indeterminacy, this series aligns with Le Livre, the major unfinished literary project by Gauguin’s friend the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who had just died in 1898.16 Mallarmé intended his project to exist perpetually in process, as a group of poems on discrete pages that could be performed or combined in different ways, thus enabling the reader to generate fresh interpretations with each reading.

This notion of the inherent flexibility of both the form and the ideas represented in a series coincides not only with the myriorama-like interchangeability of the prints in Gauguin’s Vollard series but also with his consideration of the great deities of the world religions as equal and interconnected. Buddha, Christ, and Ta’aroa could all hold equal and interchangeable places in his spiritual imagination. Similarly, individual prints in the series could be reshuffled by the artist or the viewer to suggest new narratives and to capture fresh spiritual insights with each new sequence.

In this way Te Atua and the Vollard suite more generally demonstrate that, in Gauguin’s later career, creating a series of related woodcuts aligned the materiality and format of his printed art with his most immediate spiritual concerns. These experiments negotiated the philosophical challenges of seeking elusive but fundamental connections between some of the world’s most disparate religious traditions, figures, and symbols.



I am grateful to Ellen Birch for her help with some of the research for this essay.

Image Credit

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903), Te Atua (The Gods), 1899. Woodcut, 14 3/4 x 12 13/16". University purchase, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 2001.


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