Paul Gauguin Biography

Paul Gauguin

Paul GauguinThe Paul Gauguin biography is fascinating. Gauguin spent his life searching for beauty, color and purity. He would spend his youth in comfort and leisure and would abandon it all for a career in art. He would form one of the most controversial friendships in all of art history. He would change painting styles repeatedly, until developing a style that would be so unique that it would influence later generations of artists. Gauguin's life would leave us all slightly richer.

Birth and Youth

The Paul Gauguin biography begins in 1848 in Paris. Gauguin was born in June to a French journalist and a homemaker of Peruvian descent. After the successful coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon in 1851, the Gauguin family moved to Lima, Peru. The elder Gauguin died on the trip, and Paul remained in Lima with his mother for 4 years, living comfortably. Some critics argue that the love of bright colors and native themes found in Gauguin paintings originates from this trip. The family returned to Paris, where Gauguin completed his education. He enrolled in the merchant marines at age 17, and once again explored the native lands he loved as a child. In 1867, Gauguin's mother died, and left Paul in the guardianship of Gustave Arosa. With Arosa's help, in 1870, Paul Gauguin began work as a stockbroker. He was married in 1873, and he and his wife settled into a comfortable life. Gauguin's artistic career began during this time, as he explored the extensive art collections of Arosa. He began taking classes and learning to create his own Gauguin artwork.

Struggling Artist

Gauguin met the Impressionist painter Pissaro in 1875, and began to learn about Impressionist techniques. Gauguin paintings generated during this time period begin to take on Impressionist tones. He began to socialize with other Impressionist painters, including Edgar Degas and Pierre Auguste Renoir, and was invited to exhibit with the independent Impressionist group in 1880, 1881 and 1882. A remarkable Gauguin painting from this period is Nude Study, or Suzanne Sewing. Here, a realistically painted nude occupies the center of the canvas, her shape echoed by the musical instrument hanging on the wall behind her. The luminosity of her skin owes a large debt to Renoir, while the realism of the image itself speaks to the influence of Degas.

The stock market in France crashed in 1882, plunging Gauguin into unemployment. While he attempted to portray the change as a positive development that would encourage him to improve in his art, he struggled to feed his family. Eventually, this would lead to the dissolution of his marriage. His wife returned to her family, and Gauguin stayed in Paris with the couple's oldest son. He earned a small salary by pasting ads up around the city. He continued to work on his art, as time permitted. He traveled to Pont-Aven in France, and then to Martinique, looking for a simpler, more frugal life that he could afford. He began to tell friends he was looking to "live like a savage," and find a way to express his own cultural identity.

In 1888, Gauguin's painting style began to move away from Impressionism. He advocated a new painting technique he called "synthetism," which utilized flat planes, bold colors and severe outlines. The famous painting by Gauguin from this period, The Vision After the Sermon, utilizes a bright red background highlighting struggling figures that are darkly outlined. The meaning is unclear, and the technique is far from soothing and beautiful. Historical events are taken out of context and juxtaposed with realistic aspects. We have moved from Impressionism to something completely new.

Van Gogh and Gauguin

The year 1888 would prove monumental for Gauguin. Paul would travel to Arles to live with Vincent van Gogh, who was hoping to start a new artist's colony. Unfortunately for van Gogh, Gauguin was the only artist who accepted the invitation, and he was ill-suited for communal living. The two artists quarreled over the meaning of art, and competed against one another in painting after painting. One fateful night, the two quarreled and van Gogh's ear was injured. It has been suggested that van Gogh didn't mutilate his own ear, but that Gauguin cut him with his sword during a violent altercation. Regardless, the injury of the ear ended the relationship between van Gogh and Gauguin. Paul returned to Paris after only two months.

Gauguin in Tahiti

In 1891, Gauguin moved to Tahiti, looking for a place to live that was untouched by Western influences. For Gauguin, Tahitian life was more pure, more primitive, and therefore more realistic than life in Paris. He began to incorporate native colors and masks into his works, and attempted to learn more about native rituals and beliefs. He felt this knowledge would give Gauguin paintings a sort of authenticity that had been missing up until this point. In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris, hoping to demonstrate his new technique, but felt he was no longer suited to a life in France. He returned to Tahiti in 1895, and never left the country again.

During this time, Gauguin painted many images of nude native women in highly symbolic backgrounds. Words of the Devil, for example, contains a nude woman in the forefront of the canvas, surrounded by bright-red flowers, snakes and dangerous-looking birds. The Gauguin painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from 1897 is widely considered Gauguin's masterpiece from this late period. Once again, groups of primitive people cluster on a swirling, colorful background. The vegetation curls and swirls around them. Symbolism abounds here, as Gauguin attempts to condense the entire life cycle onto just one canvas. Gauguin considered this painting to be his finest work.

By 1902, Gauguin was ill with advanced syphilis and was confined to his home. He continued to draw and write until his death in 1903.


Gauguin's use of bold color and flattened planes would prove influential to an entire generation of painters, including Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso. He is considered one of the greatest influences on Surrealist paintings.

The popularity of Paul Gauguin paintings continues to grow. An exhibit of artwork by Gauguin at the Tate Modern in 2011 drew large crowds, so much so that the entire exhibit was considered sold out, weeks in advance.