Gauguin, Paul

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

The restless spirit of the French painter Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin drove him to faraway places. A successful stockbroker, he gave up his career to devote his life to painting and to seek the simple beauty he saw in the lives of primitive peoples.

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on June 7, 1848, and moved to Peru with his family when he was 3 years old. The excitement of his four years in Lima, the capital of Peru, had a great impact on the little boy. At 17 he joined the merchant marine and went to sea for six years. Then he returned to France, filled with memories of strange and beautiful lands.

He settled in Paris and became a stockbroker. On pleasant Sundays he could be seen strolling in the park with his Danish wife, Mette, and their five children, all healthy, proud, and well dressed.

Gauguin enjoyed the art of Camille Pissarro and other French artists known as the impressionists. He collected their works, took up painting, and in 1880 exhibited with them. Three years later he left his job and told Mette that he planned to devote all of his time to art. Gauguin was accustomed to success and was certain that he would succeed in painting; Mette was not. She never forgave her husband for what she thought was the sacrifice of his family for a selfish whim. In the end, the couple separated.

As an artist, Gauguin was unable to sell his work and now faced a life of poverty and desperation. By 1886 the expense of city life had become so demanding that he left Paris and went to an artists' colony in Brittany, a region in northwestern France. After a year he traveled to Panama, where he worked as a laborer. Then he went to the tropics of Martinique, where he could live and paint in freedom. After a year in Martinique, Gauguin returned to Brittany, ill and penniless.

Gauguin's style was influenced by the picturesque surroundings of Brittany as well as his memories of voyages to exotic places. He was also helped by Japanese ideas, as interpreted by his friend the artist Vincent van Gogh. Gauguin's work was characterized by flat, simple forms in intense colors that were often outlined in black. His paintings portrayed his feelings toward the natural and the mysterious.

In 1891, Gauguin had raised enough money to go to the primitive South Sea island of Tahiti. The lush forests, the beautiful people, and the calls of strange birds haunted him. He decided to stay and share the simple life of the Tahitians.

Although his paintings capture the beauty of Tahitian culture, Gauguin could not completely understand or be happy in this primitive society. He suffered years of poverty and sickness. On May 8, 1903, he died on Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesas Islands, alone and unaware of the mark his painting would make on modern art.

Reviewed by Frank Getlein
Author, The French Impressionists

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