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Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

( Originally Published 1955 )



French Post-Impressionist painter and graphic artist whose work was of tremendous importance in the formulation of various early twentiethcentury schools: the Fauves in his own country and the Blue Rider painters of Germany. In his own time he belongs to the more intuitive side of Post-Impressionism (see), that is to the Symbolists and Nabis among others. Gauguin's father was a journalist, his mother a propagandist on the liberal side. The family left France for Peru when Louis Napoleon seized the throne in 1851, the father dying en route. Gauguin entered the merchant marine in, 1865, making several trips to Rio. In 1871 he entered the stockbrokerage business and began to do very well. Two years later he married a Danish girl and also began his artistic career, painting as an amateur and starting to collect Impressionist works. In 1876 one of his pictures was accepted at the Salon. He became friendly with Pissarro in 1879 and under his influence joined the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition and the Sixth in 1881. By 1883 Gauguin who had already abandoned his family decided on painting as a career and left the stockbroker's office. The following year, visiting his wife's family in Denmark, he was unable to find exhibiting facilities or to get along with the Danes; he returned to Paris with his son Clovis in 1885, worked as a billsticker and suffered extreme privation. His first stay in Brittany (at Pont-Aven) was from June to November 1886, presumably in search of primitive and unspoiled people. In 1887 he took a trip to Panama, and the following year stayed again at Pont-Aven and began his so-called Synthetism or Cloisonnism, consisting of the arbitrary rearrangement of what the artist sees into a synthetic or artificial rather than natural representation (i.e., a controlled rather than naturalistic projection). Technically this is accomplished by transforming the local color of an object into a powerful color image, in which the most characteristic color is exaggerated into a broad flat area bounded by heavy black outlines or cloisons, as in enamel work. 1888 was also the year of his first one-man show (arranged with the help of Theo van Gogh) and of a visit to Vincent at Arles which ended unhappily for both. At the World's Fair in 1889 Gauguin experienced Javanese art; he also moved away from Pont-Aven, which was becoming tourist-infested, to Le Pouldu in Brittany. Here his art took on its final and definitive form, which did not change even after his emigration to the South Seas. One of the great works of this period is the Yellow Christ with its simplification of form, its intensification of the local or immedate color of the objects shown, and the reducton of landscape to a series of related tonalities and interrelated curves moving gracefully across the surface of the canvas. By 1891 Gauguin's poverty and lack of success in Paris made him decide to leave the country and go to Tahiti where he first stayed from 1891 to 1893, painting such significant works as la Orana Maria and Ta Matete. But with no money coming in and ill, he returned to Paris; there a show organized at the suggestion of Degas was a financial failure although important in its effect on such painters as Bonnard, Vuillard and others of the Nabi group.

Feeling that life in France had little to offer, Gauguin returned to Tahiti in 1895 where, after a fruitful period of work but also of great suffering resulting from disease and lack of understanding on the part of the local French, he died in 1903. The example of his life in seeking out primitive, unsophisticated and unspoiled peoples, as much as his feeling for the emotional and symbolic power of color, are ultimately the chief contributions of this unusual personality and artist. Within a few years after his death, Gauguin's art was a great influence on the modern scene and his personal solution of the problems of modern civilization was a kind of escape that many tried to achieve.



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