Ships and travel played an important role in the life of French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, and many of the key moments in his life and indeed, key stages in his artistic career, can be separated and partitioned by his most recent voyage. Gauguin’s travels began when he was just over a year old, after his family decided to leave France due to political upheaval in the country in 1849. They travelled by ship to Peru where some of his mother’s family had originated from, but sadly his father Clovis Gauguin died on the crossing. An eighteen month old Gauguin, his sister and his mother arrived in Peru and lived in Lima for four years – some have said that Gauguin’s earliest artistic influences, as well as his early tastes in women, were developed during these formative years in South America.
The family returned to France when Gauguin was seven, he completed his schooling in Orléans, and at the age of 17 he joined the French merchant navy as part of his required military service. After three years of service he joined the French Navy with whom he would stay for a further two years, being stationed for a time in the Caribbean islands. It was while he was on a ship in the Caribbean that he learned that his mother had died and by 1871 he was back in France.
At some point in the late 1880s following his split from his wife and family in France, Gauguin travelled to Martinique in the Caribbean, working as a construction worker for the Panama Canal only to be fired two weeks later. Whether this final failed attempt at a proper job convinced him that painting was his true calling is unknown, but after this incident he worked solely as an artist. It was in 1891 that he embarked on the first of his trips to the South Pacific and to the islands of French Polynesia, trying to escape what he felt was the artificial and conventional lifestyle of Europe. Colonialism may have taken its toll on the French Polynesian islands, but they still provided inspiration for Gauguin’s artwork at the time, although it didn’t prove to be critically or commercially popular when he brought it back to France. In 1895 he made his final cruise from France to Tahiti, never to return.
Given the more lurid details surrounding Gauguin’s behaviour and exploits in the South Pacific, it’s highly ironic that there is currently a cruise ship that sleazes its way through the islands of Tahiti and French Polynesia operated by the no doubt unblemished company, Paul Gauguin Cruises. The ship is known as the Paul Gauguin and is apparently specifically designed to access areas of shallow seas that other ships can’t reach – according to one promotional brochure, ‘Some ships sail upon the sea - the Gauguin is a creature of the sea’. In contrast to the actions of the man who the vessel was named in honour of, families will be given a warm welcome on board, and behaviour such as taking a local child bride or spreading syphilis will probably be frowned upon.