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Paul Gauguin

(1848 – 1903)

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait with Yellow Christ, 1890-91, oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm. Courtesy: Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) was a French post-impressionist painter. He is considered one of the major French painters of the 19th century, and one of the most important inventors of modern art along with Klimt, Munch, Seurat and van Gogh. Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France. In 1851, his family left Paris for Peru. They lived for four years in Lima, Peru. The imagery of Peru would later influence Paul in his art.

At the age of seven, Paul and his family returned in France. They settled in Orleans, France to live with his grandfather. He quickly learned French and excelled in his studies. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he found work as a stockbroker. In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette Sophie Gad. Gauguin was interested in art since childhood. In his spare time, he started to paint. He also frequently visited galleries and bought works by emerging artists. Gauguin became friends with the artist Camille Pissarro, who introduced him to other artists. As he progressed in his art, Gauguin rented a studio and exhibited his paintings at the Impressionist exhibitions held in 1881 and 1882. During two summer holidays he painted with Pissarro and occasionally with Paul Cézanne.

In 1884, Gauguin moved with his family to Copenhagen, where he pursued a commercial career as a stockbroker. He returned to Paris in 1885 to paint full time, leaving his family in Denmark, a situation that distressed him. Like Vincent Van Gogh, with whom he spent nine weeks painting in Arles in 1888, Paul Gauguin had depressive episodes and attempted suicide. Disappointed by Impressionism, he felt that traditional European painting had become too imitative and lacked symbolic depth. In contrast, the art of Africa and Asia seemed to him full of mystical symbolism and vigour. Europe was now experiencing a vogue for the art of other cultures.

Gauguin moved towards Cloisonnism. In The Yellow Christ (1889), often cited as the quintessence of Cloisonnism, the image is reduced to areas of pure colour separated by heavy black outlines. In his oeuvre, Gauguin pays little attention to classical perspective and eliminates the subtle gradations of colour, thus dispensing with the two most characteristic principles of post-renaissance painting. His experiments with colour led directly to the synthesist style of modern art, in which neither form nor colour predominates, but each plays an equal role.

His expression of the inherent meaning of the subjects of his paintings, under the influence of the Cloisonnist style, paved the way for primitivism and the return to the pastoral. A very influential piece in this sense is “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” He was also an influential exponent of woodcutting and wood engraving as art forms. Many of Paul Gauguin’s paintings are painted on both sides of canvas. Like many painters of the 19th century, Paul Gauguin turned over some of the paintings he owned of painters of his time to compose his own works. This is the case, for example, with the nude from the Slomovic collection, which has a view of a bedroom on the reverse side.

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