A Biography of Paul Gauguin

Paris, the name alone is enough to spark thoughts of romance, fine wines, and haute cuisine. It is a place of dream vacations, art galleries, bistros, and music, but in the imaginings of those who wish for nothing more than an extended holiday…… it is so much more. Paris is a place of historic artistry, and it has been home to a countless number of the world’s greatest artists.

Da Vinci, Monet, Manet, Picasso, Renoir, Utrillo, Dali, Van Gogh, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec all lived with Paris’ city limits, almost exclusively in the Montmartre district. An artist’s haven, Montmartre was filled with studios, entertainment, and boasted the area’s finest wine. Made by local nuns, the wine was responsible for Montmartre’s irresistible, popular drinking spots, and if the wine weren’t enough, exemption from Paris taxes due to the area’s location on the city limits served to make the area even more appealing.

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on June 7, 1848, a time in which the city was far different place from the way we romanticize it today. Gauguin’s father hailed from Orleans; his mother was of Spanish Peruvian lineage. Not quite five months before Gauguin’s birth, riots had broken out in the city. Discontent with France’s reigning monarch, King Louis Philippe, in addition to over population and horrific living conditions caused students, radicals, and unemployed workers to join together in dissent. Barricades were built by these protesters using anything readily available; trees were cut down, pavements dislodged, and private carriages overturned. Chaos ruled the day.

At the time of his birth, Gauguin’s father, Clovis, was a French journalist; his mother, Alina, was the daughter of socialist writer and activist Flora Tristan. At the age of three, due to the constant political unrest and victory of Louis Napoleon (1769-1821), Paul’s family embarked on a ship headed for Lima, Peru. His father died during the trip.

Gauguin, his older sister, and his mother remained in Lima for four years. There the young Gauguin lived a comfortable life surrounded by his mother’s relatives. In his seventh year, the small family returned to Orleans. Gauguin later found his way back to Paris, where he attended the seminary. At the age of seventeen, Paul Gauguin enlisted in the merchant marine (people who work on commercial ships), in order to fulfill his military obligations. He would spend the next six years sailing, taking in the landscapes (seascapes if you will), and falling in love with the beauty of the world.

In 1870, Gauguin began a career as a stockbroker and remained in this profession for twelve years. It was during this time that he met and married a Danish girl, Mette Sophia Gad. The couple seemed destined for a comfortable, middle-class existence from the onset, but Paul’s love of art and dreams of becoming an artist would interfere. It’s funny how our true destinies sometimes tend to fool us.

Paul and Mette’s family blossomed, and they went on to have five children together. They lived the bourgeois dream. Money was no object. That Gauguin was a successful stockbroker is without question, that he would delve into the world of art as a painter in his adulthood must have shocked many. Painting began as a hobby, Sunday afternoons rich with canvas, brushes, and oils. Accompanied by a co-worker, what began as a pastime soon became a journey into the world of Impressionism. Gauguin embraced the movement, attracted by its use of soft colors to depict everyday life. He befriended the likes of Degas, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, who tutored him in technique and style. Van Gogh became a huge fan, while other Impressionists like Monet and Cezzane were far from enthusiastic about neither the man nor his art.

Between the years 1876 and 1886, Gauguin exhibited his work alongside France’s greatest Impressionists five times. In 1883, he left his job to live the dream. Soon, the family that had enjoyed all they could have asked for found itself destitute. Lack of patrons and depleted savings forced the family’s relocation to Copenhagen where they found shelter with Mette’s family. When things didn’t go well, Paul returned to Paris leaving his family behind.

Paul’s return to Paris was short lived. Disenchanted with the busy, dirty streets of the big city, and determined to find his own unique mode of artistic expression, Paul moved to Brittany. Western France captivated the budding artist. He was mesmerized by its breathtaking countryside, its people, and most of all by its culture. His world was no longer shadowed by the dark hues of the city. Color entered his life in the form of bright costumes, and the animation of the people who wore them. Gauguin began to mix the rich colors on his palette creating bright and sometimes whimsical canvases.

From 1886 to 1891, Gauguin considered Brittany his home, and during that time he gained the respect and admiration of Europe’s finest artists. Unfortunately, that was where the accolades ended. Collectors had no interest. He couldn’t sell his work, he couldn’t afford to live, and yet he continued to strive to become a better painter. Gauguin believed that in order to reach that goal he would need to move yet again. His destination…… the South Seas.

Gauguin arrived in Tahiti in 1891, after assuring his wife and family that one day they would reunite. He was wrong. Far from the paradise he believed he’d find there, Paul was disappointed no only by the island, but by its similarities to the place he’d just left. Tahiti was ruled by the French government, and Gauguin had no desire to live as he’d lived in France. Forays into the wilderness and exploration of nearby islands granted him the serenity and inspiration he searched for. Where his painting had initially explored Impressionism, and was later replaced by the broad, bright, flat colors he’d discovered in Brittany, the South Seas sparked his imagination.

Paul Gauguin’s former landscapes became a world of dreams. Nature was rearranged; the world took on new hues of color and fantastical imagery. The artist himself worked day and night, basking in the realization that he loved his own work, that he was happy with himself. How sad that the joy he felt in his art couldn’t have warmed the rest of his life.

Using different forms of art from around the globe, stained glass windows, Japanese prints, the ancient art of Egypt and Persia, Gauguin found the muses to develop his own personal style. His art bloomed while his health failed; he became rich with talent while living the life of a very poor man. It is believed that his waning health, lack of funds, loneliness, and possibly a sense of guilt all contributed to his alleged suicide attempt in January of 1901.

Nine months after his alleged suicide attempt, Gauguin relocated to the island of Hive Oa, a member of the Marquesas. After purchasing a sizable plot of land, Gauguin with the help of his neighbors constructed a home. This elaborate construction was seen as a work of art and its decorations were inspired by the Maori works Gauguin had fallen in love with during a trip to New Zealand. Due to its luxuriant decor and impeccably carved friezes, Gauguin’s accommodations were soon known as “the house of pleasure.”

It wasn’t long before Gauguin once again became disenchanted with French rule and argued with French authorities. Had he been healthy, he may have made a desired move to Spain. Unfortunately, the year 1902 found Gauguin battling an advanced case of syphilis which tremendously limited his mobility. Those limitations however, did not interfere with his artistic productivity, and he concentrated his remaining energy on drawing and writing, especially his memoir, Avant et Apres. Gauguin died on May 8, 1903 in his self proclaimed “house of pleasure.” He died alone.

To an outsider, Gauguin’s life must have seemed exciting and full of adventure. What a wonderful thing to be able to live a dream. For Gauguin, however, the end of his life was anything but pleasurable. Most of the years he spent in the South Sea were unhappy, plagued with illness, and ridden by poverty. He had reached a point where he was happy with his art, but was sadly unable to achieve acceptance from others.

Today, Gauguin’s work is hailed as some of the best; his style drawn from a mixture of experience, travel, and imagination. If the viewer is lucky enough to look closely at his paintings they’ll notice the variety of mediums Gauguin used. His canvases were far more than we would envision, and upon close inspection one might see that he often used the readily available burlap sack that instantly provided him with the textures he desired in his paintings. Less known are his wood carvings, something he studied while living in Tahiti and borrowed from the native culture.

Gauguin completed his memoirs before his death, but they were not published until 1923. His writings allow the reader a glimpse into the rich Bohemian culture of the past, and provide a first hand account of an amazing group of artists and their relationships with each other, albeit a biased account. As with his paintings, what we see or read in Gauguin’s works depends entirely upon our own interpretations. Our perceptions are individual as are our beliefs.


“Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists, Gauguin; Mike Venezia; Childrens Press, Chicago @ 1988

“Paul Gauguin.” 2011. Biography.com. 9 May 2011, 11:58 http://www.biography.com/articles/Paul-Gauguin-9307741 .