Ivy Tech Community College, Noblesville, IN.
Gauguin “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
April 4, 2018
Paul Gauguin was a french impressionist artist who was known for painting in a manner many would claim to be savage. He lived from June 7, 1848 to May 8, 1903; dying from syphilis. He was married to Mette-sophie Gad and had seven children. “Having spent his childhood in Peru, Paul Gauguin enlisted in the merchant navy at the age of 17, and travelled from Brazil to the West Indies, which gave him a taste for new and exotic places.”(Walter, 04,04,2018, paragraph 1). In between his hospitalizations due to his condition, he still found time to search for his lost paradise; which was his influence to his greatest masterpiece “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”.
Gauguin’s “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” is a piece of art that was painted on and of the island of Tahiti. The artist visited the island when his main career in the stock market fell into a backslide causing him to give up on his dream; however, with immense time on his hands, Gauguin decided that he wanted to take his hobby of painting from recreation to a more professional standpoint. Having been diagnosed with syphilis, it was clear his time was limited so over the span of his last 10-15 years he visited the island of Tahiti to work on his painting, each time leaving behind the wealth that enveloped France. In his earlier years, “Paul Gauguin styled himself and his art as ‘savage.’ Although he began his artistic career with the Impressionists in Paris, during the late 1880s he fled farther and farther from urban civilization in search of an edenic paradise where he could create pure, ‘primitive’ art” (Kang, 2011, paragraph 1).
Historians have trouble finding influences in Gauguin’s art works, “However, he adopted a number of different artistic styles during his life. His painting was similar to that of his friend the landscape painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and he took part in five Impressionist exhibitions”(Walter, 04,04,2018, paragraph 1). Vincent van Gogh is said to be another one of Gauguin’s influences. “Gauguin came to associate this color with modernity and spirituality after his time with van Gogh”(Kang, 2011, paragraph 5). Within Gauguin’s art works one can see hints of Van Gogh’s work used in his along with Emile Bernard, both artist are post-impressionists. Gauguin’s works influenced Edvard Munch a Norwegian painter and printmaker who specialized in psychological themes.
Gauguin’s piece is up for display in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and illustrates the island of Tahiti, the process of life from birth to death, and that at the end of one’s life one should not be scared but willing and accepting of his or her fate. The work contains a number of organic and symbolic figures that are spread out over the island landscape to which if viewed as Gauguin intended tells the story of life. Within “Letters de Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid” “Gauguin first writes about the infant sleeping within the lower left hand corner and three women crouched beside it. He then goes on to talk about two figures dressed in purple who as he describes are confiding their thoughts with one another while a seemingly unproportional figure with it’s arms raised stares in astonishment of the two figures in purple who dare to think of their destiny. The figure in the center stands erect while picking fruit, and two cats near a child, a white goat, and a statue with its arms raised depicts the beyond. Gauguin finishes his review of the figures within his art by talking about the elderly women upon the lower right hand corner who accepts her inescapable death, at her feet is a bird that gripped in its claws is a lizard expressing the futility of words, thus finishing Gauguin’s “story” depicted from right to left.”(Gauguin? Or Archive?, 2008, pg.109). In the background you can see the volcanic mountains of the island behind Tahiti. Although the mood of the artwork varies as the viewer moves their eyes around the work, he was consistent in his color scheme. Gauguin also wrote a series of letters to Vincent Van Gogh depicting the method at which to view the work, he believed that the work should be viewed from the bottom left and over to the right as thats how he painted the timeline of life. In a article written and published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, refers to the masterpiece as being Gauguin’s entire art history being combined in one single image “This monumental allegorical painting served as a synthesis or culmination of his art”(Kang, 2011, paragraph 8).
The work of art depicts the timeline of life from being a new born baby to being elderly nearing death and showing the motions of aging. Rhythm is be used when looking from each organic figure to the next as well as harmony to bring not only this painting but his other paintings, ” he drew and painted the same figures over and over again, cutting and pasting them in different configurations and settings”(Kang, 2011, paragraph 8). Gauguin describes the objects within the painting as being figures instead of humans or using adjectives like men and women, this allows for them to be considered shapes instead of forms given having been drawn as two dimensional figures. Gauguin uses a wide variety of lines throughout the painting, the figures depicted in the work almost all have diagonal lines that lead to the the figure gathering fruit in the middle. In “Gauguin’s letters to Daniel de Monfreid”, he describes the colors of the artwork as consistent to the changing tone keeping either blue or veronese green, dark, low intensity, dull colors.
Having completed his masterpiece Gauguin left the island of tahiti, “He returned to Paris in 1893, but in 1895 went back to the South Seas and in 1901 moved to the Marquesas Islands, where he died.”(The National Gallery,04, 2018, paragraph 3). Paul Gauguin died at the age of 54 leaving behind all his works for the world to enjoy.
Gallery, London The National. “Paul Gauguin.” The National Gallery, 5 Apr. 2018,
Kang, Cindy. “Paul Gauguin (1848–1903).” Metmuseum.org, Metropolitan Museum of Art , Mar.
“The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel De Monfreid : Paul Gauguin : Free Download,
Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1 Jan. 1970,
Walter, Jean, and Paul Guillaume . “Paul Gauguin.” Musée De L’Orangerie, Musée De
L’Orangerie, 1 Jan. 1970, www.musee-orangerie.fr/en/artist/paul-gauguin.