The amazing life of Paul Gauguin and his conception of art are closely allied; they are the products of peculiar heredity
,nineteenth century civilization
, the Impressionist
movement and the poetry of the Symbolists
. There is no better example of the driving power of creative impulse than the existence of the outcast painter upon whom genius descended so late in life.
The son of a journalist, Paul Gauguin was born on June 7th, 1848, in the heart of Paris. On his mother's side he was of Peruvian stock. In 1851 his father, for political reasons, found it necessary to emigrate and sailed with his family to Peru. However, M. Clovis Gauguin died before they reached Lima where the widow and her two children remained for four years. Life in the tropics during the most impressionable period of childhood must have haunted Gauguin ever since.
When he was seven, his mother took him back to be educated in France; at the age of nine he tried to run away, carrying a handkerchief filled with sand and knotted at the end of a stick. At sixteen, after leaving the Lycee of Orleans, he insisted on going to sea. He started out as a midshipman in the Merchant Marine; six years later he gave up the career as an ordinary seaman in the Navy.
On his return, he was taken care of by friends of his mother's (she had died in his abscence) and settled down in Paris to a quiet, humdrum existence as an assistant broker. As soon as his financial circumstances made it possible, he married Mette Gad, a staid, housewifely Danish girl with whom he had fallen in love at first sight.
Gone was all thought of adventure. The years went by; five children, a well regulated life, office work precise and legal, requiring no imagination, left no room for fantasy. Yet on Sundays he spent his time painting traditional lanscapes and carving children's heads. At the age of 28, he exhibited a picture at the Salon; an amateur artist, no more, and his ambition carried him no farther.
It was then that he met the Impressionist painters whose bright, live colors create reality anew. He was spellbound by their method which was at last attaining recognition. He exhibited with the group and acheived a certain measure of success. His painting at that time greatly resembles Pissarro's whose exotic origin created a bond of sympathy between them.
Suddenly, one day, at the age of 35, he resigned from his office and announced to his startled wife that he had resolved to devote his time entirely to painting. It must be said for Mette that, although she thouroughly disapproved of his venture, she bore with him for a whole year. At the end of this period, when the family's savings had dwindled to nothing, she decided to return to her mother in Denmark, where he followed her out of sheer despair.
In Copenhagen, unwilling to live on his wife's family, Gauguin tried to earn his living by travelling for an awning factory. His hot temper made him totally unfit for such work;once in a rage he threw a glass of water at a client. A sense of failure, the feeling that instead of painting he was wasting precious time in the futile pursuit of his daily bread, embittered him and he lost no opportunity of shocking his prim in-laws by his Bohemian ways. Finally he took his delicate nine year old son Clovis and, leaving the four other children with his wife, returned to Paris. Life became increasingly difficult. Clovis fell ill from want of food. Gauguin was stubborn and proud; rather than return to the broker's office he got a job pasting posters in order to keep his sick boy alive. Fortunately he was placed in charge of the poster firm's publicity department which enabled him to send Clovis to boarding school, where Mette later found the boy and took him back to Denmark.
Neither poster pasting now office woork prevented Gauguin from painting, but hunger, cold and incessent work soon landed him in a hospital where he was forced to remain for nearly a month. His wife in the meantime sent him no encouragement whatever; she found it hard to earn her living and support her children which she did by translating the work of French writers, and particularly Zola who was a friend of theirs. She did not spare Gauguin in her letters.
As soon as he had saved a little money, he went to Pont-Aven in Brittany, lured by the cliffs and moors of the Land's End of France. He painted uncouth, homely figures of peasants who hands are unaccustomed to idleness, and Calvary with divine figures as stiff and poignantly primitive as the mysterious prehistoric cromlechs and menhirs scattered about the Breton countryside.
From the Pont-Aven period onwards, Gauguin's aim was to paint symbolically, "away from Nature." Thus although his Breton peasants and later his South Sea natives are perfectly realistic, the objects of their worship (whether they be The Yellow Christ and Calvary of the Breton priod, or Hail, Mary and The Idol of the Tahitian pictures) are represented as though they wre imagined and expressed by the simple Breton fisher-folk or the primitive Tahitian islanders.
In 1887, Gauguin decided to try his luck in the happy lands of his boyhood travels and, persuading another painter, Charles Laval, to join, set out for Panama where the digging of the canal seemed to them an excellent means of earning their passage and several months freedom to paint. For weeks they spent twelve hours a day excavating the rocky soil with no thought of painting. Finally, the Panama crash released them and they went to Martinique where tropical fevers got the better of them both and compelled them to return to France
Back in Paris, homeless and penniless again, Gauguin was luckily befriended by Emelie Schuffenecker, a fellow artist who had followed his example and given up a financial career in order to paint. Having sold with his help a few pictures and carved stoneware, Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven, His ideas had by then taken definite shape and he expounded them to the circle of friends and disiciples who began to cluster around him. "Let everything you do breathe peace and calm of soul," he used to say. "Avoid all animated attitudes. Each of your figures should be perfectly static." In this we cannot but see the influence of the poet Baudelaire and his hatred of "line-displacing movement."
Before his first voyage, Gauguin had become friendly with Vincent Van Gogh who now invited him to stay with him in Arles. The idea was to create a brotherhood of painters but harmony did not reign long between then; in a few weeks they quarreled and the unbalanced Vincent, after theatening Gauguin with a razor, cut off one of his own ears in a fit of remorse. The two painters influenced each other; it was partly from Van Gogh that Gauguin acquired the Japanese style of some of his paintings.
Gauguin returned to Brittany, where he went on working intensely. Many of his friends came to stay with him at the inn kept by Mlle. Marie Henry whose protrait he painted; all encouraged him and listened to his advice. Jacob's Struggle with the Angel, intended for the Church of Pont-Aven, was, however, refused with horror by the curate.
Gauguin painted from memory or from notes taken during his walks or observations; he never used a model. He did not like to imitate nature but held that an artist should create a new world out of the materials nature afforded. His aims was to express the mystery he felt before its wonders and for him as for Van Gogh, everything had a meaning; color and design served to carry a message by means of suggestion rather than outright representation. This was also the aim in another sphere of art of the Symbolist poets who formed part of his circle. To Verlaine and his friends colors and sounds were related and bore in themselves a great part of the ideas they were intended to convey. Other poets spoke in riddles; all tried to express themselves instead of representing the world around them. That is why Gauguin is an expressionaist and if he is sometimes difficult to understand it is because we have to adapt ourselves not only to his vision but also to his surroundings. Above all, Gauguin loved sun effects and the magic of pure color laid on in ample, sonorous strokes.
After another return to Paris where he sold some of the works painted in Brittany, Gauguin, by dint of pulling strings obtained a sommission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. He was to travel to Tahiti at his own expense, work there and bring back picture which the State promised to buy.
He arrived in Papeete on June 8th, 1891. He found the town over civilized for his taste and chose to reside at Mataeia in the heart of the island. Thre he lived with a sweet, silent Tahitian girl of thirteen and worked to his heart's content while his money lasted. It did not last long and moreover he fell seriously ill. During this period, he painted among other works, Manao Tupapau ("The Spirit of the Dead Watching"), a striking expression of the mystical fear which haunts the primitive mind of the native.
In 1893, however, overcome by illness and poverty, he was back in Paris. The Director of the Fine Arts Ministry had in the meantime been changed and the new one to whom Gauguin offered his paintings would not hear of him, considering no promise of his predecessor valid without a written commitment, of which the trusting painter had never even though.
So Gauguin, after an unsatisfactory sale of his latest pictures, settled down in Paris, having providentially inherited some money. But peace was not for him. During a trip to Brittany with a Javanese girl he had picked up in Paris, he got into a brawl with some drunken sailors, one of whom gave him a kick which broke his ankle. He was in the hospital again for several weeks. In the meantime, the girl went back to Paris and made off with all his belongings. Thoroughly disgusted, Gauguin decided to leave France for good; somehow he blamed European civilization for the dishonesty of his Javanese paramour. A last desperate appeal to his wife, whom he never ceased to love, entreating her to come away to the south seas with him and the children, met with a refusal and Gauguin went back alone.
So numerous were the moral, physical and financial setbacks he had to bear on his return to Tahiti, that it is a wonder he had the courage to carry on. His daughter Aline, the only member of the family who truly loved and admired him, died in Denmark, his foot would not heal and no money was forthcoming from the sale of his pictures in France. Despair drove him to attempt at suicide which failed because he took too strong of a dose of Arsenic. But out of his struggles grew a strange and haunting composition, painted on sackcloth in blue and green, with orange figures: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
For a year he was obliged to give up painting and take an office job in Papeete in order to live. Then at last he received some money from France where the dealers were selling his pictures. The guileless painter had either been cheated or simply forgotten. He returned to his inland studio which he found greatly damaged by rats and rain. It was then that being at odds with the authorities, who objected to his carefree ways, he published a monthly satirical journal The Smile. He wroite the articles, illustrated with his woodcuts and was his own printer. Finally the enmity of the village officials also the fear of influenza drove him away from Tahiti and in 1901 he went to Hiva Oa, an island of the Marquesas, settling down at Atuana where he built a new studio.
He was fifty-three; with his usual optimism he decorated his home which he called "La Maison du Jouis" (The House of Enjoyment ) and set to work again. However the illness which made him so irritable would leave him no respite. Again he quarreled with the gendarme of the village, defending the natives, whom he loved and who loved him no less, against the exactions of the officials. He was finally charged with encouraging rebellion, tried and condemned to imprisonment and a fine. A fighter to the last, he appealed to the higher court at Tahiti and was about to attend the session when he had a relapse and died, alone in his studio hut, on May 8th, 1903.