Like Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) favored subjective expression and rejected objective representation. Gauguin wrote with dejection about Impressionism:
    The Impressionists study color exclusively, but without freedom, always shackled by need of probability. For them the ideal landscape, created from many different entities, does not exist. Their edifice rests upon no solid base and ignores the nature of the sensations perceived by the means of color. They heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centers of thought, so falling into merely scientific reasoning.
Born in Paris on June 7,1848 into a liberal middle class family he spent an adventurous childhood in places such as Peru, followed by a short stint in the French navy and afterward enjoying a remarkable success as a Parisian stockbroker, he settled into a comfortable bourgeois existence with his wife and five children. He met artist Camille Pissarro at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and became a collector spending some 17,000 francs on works by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley , Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Armand Guillaumin. This event set in motion his experiment in painting and from 1879 to 1886 he exhibited with the Impressionists.

It was Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh who introduced him to Japanese prints when he spent a brief time with him in Arles in 1888. Soon after, Gauguin began to abandoned imitative art for expressiveness through color employing it in new and unexpected combinations making his art very different from Van Gogh's. More educated in its combination of exotic and rare elements it was widely decorative although it was no less beleaguered. He painted for a time as an amateur, however after taking lessons from Pissarro, he quit his successful brokerage business in 1883 and committed his life to painting. He and his family were reduced to paucity, but he refused to abandon his art for he believed that, in spite of the ridicule and neglect, art was his calling. His wife and children were left with out adequate subsidence and were forced to return to France to live with her family. His art did not sell at the onset so Gauguin began to search out more exciting subjects and a cheaper place to live residing for short periods in small villages in Brittany where he was a member of a small group of experimental painters known as the school of Pont-Aven.

Under the tutelage of Emile Bernard Gauguin renounced Impressionism and adapted a less naturalistic style which he termed synthetism. Paying visits to the tropics like Martinique he discovered what would inspire all of his future work and established his subjects as those people around him, drawn from primitive life set in tropical colors.

His attitude toward color separated from the Impressionists attitude of painstakingly placement of hues set off against one another. Color must be expressive above all else he professed and it was within the realm of the artist to determine the color in a work of art as a necessary part of its creation:Art is an abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than of the actual result. The only way to rise towards God is by doing as our divine Master does, create.

The younger generation was influenced greatly by Gauguin’s views and art. One was Parisian artist Maurice Denis, who said in Definition of Neo-Traditionalism in 1890:

    Gauguin freed us from all the restraints which the idea of copying nature had placed upon us. For instance, if it was permissible to use vermilion in painting a tree which seemed reddish . . . why not stress even to the point of deformation the curve of a beautiful shoulder or conventionalize the symmetry of a bough?
In 1891, in debt and ruined, Gauguin set sail for the South Seas to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” A complex mixture of Eastern and Western elements became integrated into some areas of Gauguin’s art. These themes were generally shared within the great masters of European Renaissance and applied as a result of his earlier study of non-European culture and arts.

In Tahiti and the Marquesas, where he spent the last decade of his life, Gauguin presented his deep admiration of primitive life and dazzling color in a succession of ornamental and brilliant canvases. The intention was frequently derived obliquely from native motifs, and the foundation of the color owed its atypical accord of lilac, pink, and lemon to the tropical plant life of the islands. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of such works is that of a refined, modern man attempting to understand an innocent and early way of life that was already endangered by European colonization.

Fond of using simple linear patterns and brad areas of flat color that recall Byzantine enamels and Medieval stained glass, which Gauguin appreciated. He effectively balanced many fundamentals that belonged to Renaissance and other eras using vaguely flattened forms that was comparable to the properties of Egyptian sculpture. Romantic art was stimulated by the wonder of “exotic” lands and their people peripheral to Europe; with Gauguin, a revision of non-European techniques in painting began. He embodied a new defiance, not just against conventional art, but also against the whole of European civilization. According to Gauguin, civilization is what makes you sick. This quest for vigor in new people and new life styles, embarked upon in the 1700’s now picked up speed, anticipating the twentieth century interest in drawing artistic insights from Japan, the Pacific Islands and from much of the non-European world.

An uneasy consciousness of psychic tension, discontent with the burdens of civilization and a perception of predictability and degradation it can bring with it, colored the disposition of many artists toward the end of the century and throughout the years prior World War I. Art and literature languished during this fin de siècle as a kind of malaise compounded by despondency, tedium, morbidity, and hypersensitivity to the esthetic. Painters influenced by Gauguin and Van Gogh regularly understood it in harsh observations communicated in bitter distortion of both form and color. A switch from recording the present-day outlook, with all its diversity and human interest at the Impressionists had done just a few decades before.

With the exception of one trip to France from 1893 to 1895 Gauguin lived in the tropics for the rest of his life, first in Tahiti, then later in the Marquesas Islands. His style and vital distinctiveness of his work kept its archaic traits of meaningful color, denial of perspective and flat thick forms. With the influence of tropical primitivism his subject matter become more original and his scale larger and more magnificent. Scenes ranged from ordinary life such as Two Women on the Beach (1891) to ominous scenarios of superstitious trepidation such as the Spirit of the Dead(1892). Probably his most infamous and renown painting is his monumental allegory Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? an oil on canvas painted in 1897. He set the scene in a paradise of tropical beauty: the Tahiti of daylight, self-determination, and the color that Gauguin left his job and country to discover. A little stream runs through the forest, and behind it is a vast slice of sparkling blue ocean, with the misty mountains of a second islet expanding afar. Gauguin’s intention was to convey clearly that this picture was his testament. Feeling unappreciated he created a story that he was quite ill and resolved to commit suicide. He wrote to a friend, relating his journey into the mountains with arsenic. After he ingested it he awoke to find himself still very much alive, and returned to paint more. It is sad that so great an artist felt he needed to manufacture a ploy to get people to appreciate his work.

Today this French postimpressionist painter, whose verdant multicolored two dimensional forms and primitive subject matter that helped form the basis for modern art might be satisfied to see the many now that view his work with admiration. It was a modest salary from a Parisian art dealer that sustained him until his death at Atuana in Marquesas on May 9, 1903.

Gauguin’s intrepid experiments in coloring led directly to the twentieth century Fauvist style in modern art and his strong modeling influenced artist Edvard Munch and the later school of Expressionists.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Gauguin, (Eugéne Henri) Paul," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

In Goldwater and Treves, eds., Artists on Art, p 373.

Justus, Kevin. "Art and Culture II." Tucson , Arizona.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)