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Paul Gauguin (fr. Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, 7 June 1848, Paris, France — 8 May 1903, Atuona, French Polynesia) was a French post-impressionist artist. Gauguin spent his youth on merchant ships, traveling around the world. After that, he returned to France, married and became a stock broker. A few years later, Gauguin suddenly began to draw, and finally quit his job, left his family and went to live in Tahiti, where he painted his most famous canvases. But during his lifetime, the artist received almost no recognition, critics and journalists ridiculed his work. Gauguin spent the last years of his life on the Marquesas islands.

Features of Paul Gauguin's art: the early Gauguin’s work can be attributed to impressionism, later he addressed to cloisonism and synthetism. In his most famous Tahitian canvases, he most often used very bright, pure, sometimes even unnatural colours. The characters of his paintings are half naked native girls surrounded by village huts and tropical landscapes.

The famous paintings of Paul Gauguin: "When the wedding?", "Woman with a flower", "Woman holding fruit", "Where did we come from?" Who are we? Where are we going?", "The spirit of the dead does not sleep", "Yellow Christ", "Where are you going?" 

If we say that Paul Gauguin was a great artist, there are very few people who are ready, and most importantly, capable, to object to this. But the assertion that Paul Gauguin was a great man, on the contrary, is very controversial. The artist, of course, was an outstanding person, whose life was full of troubles and hardships. But if we consider him precisely as a person, abstracting from his talent and creative heritage, one can only be surprised at how he managed to get along with people, or rather, how these people put up with him.

Gauguin was aggressive and arrogant, he spoiled relations with others and made them quarrel with each other (sometimes just for fun). He considered himself an unrecognized genius and lived the dream of a moment when the whole world would cruelly repent that they did not understand his talent. The only person to whom Gauguin was truly attached was his daughter Alina (by the way, she was the main admirer of his work even when no one believed in him). But Alina was neither able to keep the artist next to her, nor to persuade him to take her with him to distant southern skies.

The only thing that Gauguin did really well (except for painting, of course) was running away. His flight was selfless, desperate and never brought him comfort. Throughout his life, the artist escaped from obligations and responsibilities, lack of money and lack of recognition, family and everyday life, civilization – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The important thing is that it was always “escape from...”, but the goal of this endless journey always eluded from Gauguin.

Family business

Apparently, Gauguin got his confidence that his life would be extraordinary, and that he deserved a special treatment from his early childhood. At the age of one and a half, he made his first long journey – from France to Peru – and then he tragically lost his father. In Lima, little Paul with his mother Alina and sister Maria lived in abundance in the house of a distant relative, a millionaire. If the direct heirs of don Pio had not intervened, the Gauguin family could have inherited a considerable fortune, and then the world would most likely have lost a great artist. But it was the evil fate that pursued the Gauguin mother’s family – they all had to live in poverty for most of their lives.

It is hard to imagine how hard it was for the seven-year-old Paul to adapt to his new life when the family returned to France and settled in his grandfather’s house in Orleans. The boy was used to other landscapes, another speech (his first language was Spanish) and to a completely different standard of living. Until recently, he was treated like a little king, and suddenly he had to go to a regular French school and start thinking about boring work in some ordinary field. Paul could not allow himself such a future. Despite his mother, who advised him to pursue a career (because he has difficulty converged with people and “did not know how to gain favour”), and chose the path of his father, who broke his family tradition and became a journalist instead of a greengrocer. Gauguin became an assistant pilot in the trade fleet. For the next six years, he travelled around the world like a sponge soaking up impressions. Even the news of his mother’s death, which found him in India only a few months later, could not stop him. Nevertheless, in the end, Gauguin returned to France and gradually turned into the person whom he refused to be so desperately.

Calm before the storm

The next few years passed as if Gauguin were in some strange dream. He nevertheless got a mediocre job as an exchange broker (you can’t imagine more boring one, but this job brought a stable and very high income), married the rough blond Danish Mette Gad, who actually took his mother’s place, and got children. Those who knew Gauguin at that time recalled that he was very quiet and taciturn, as if sleeping on the go, but sometimes some kind of primitive rage woke up in him. Able to bend a horseshoe with his bare hands after many years in the Navy, Paul could pounce on an accidental offender with his fists and seriously injure him.

It seemed that one could only dream of such a life — family, stable work, prosperity. But there was some other life that Gauguin wanted for himself. Only one thing saved him from this lethargy – his unexpectedly discovered artistic talent. We must say, Paul was very lucky with his patron. Gustave Arosa, an old friend of his mother, not only helped him find a job, but later introduced him to Camille Pissarro. Following Arosa, Gauguin became a collector of paintings, and later he himself began to paint. The friendship with Pissarro lasted for many years, Gauguin called him nothing short of “Maître” and adored to his talent. But only until the moment he believed in his own highest destiny. Many years later, in a conversation with a journalist Charles Maurice, Pissarro spoke badly about his former student: “A true artist should be poor and unrecognized, he should care about art, and not the opinion of dumb critics. And this man appointed himself a genius and turned things around so that we, his friends, have to echo him. Paul forced me to help him with the exhibition, made you write an article about it ... And why the hell is he running around Panama, Martinique and Tahiti? A true artist can find his nature in Paris; it’s not about an exotic tinsel, but what’s in your soul.” Anyway, Pissarro and other impressionists had a serious impact on Gauguin's art, at least during the early period of his career (1, 2, 3). 

In 1882, a stock market crisis occurred in France, and Gauguin lost his job. The painting market also suffered, the paintings of such little-known artists were always sold rather sluggishly, and now they completely fell out of buyers’ interest. But, despite this, he regarded his loss of the job at the stock exchange as a sign: he needed to become a real artist. Worrying about the well-being of her family, Mette scandalized her husband and called him crazy. Critics who scornfully commented on the Gauguin’s work, and even his friends, who tried to make money from their painting with much ado, would agree with her. But he seemed to wake up at last from a long sleep. He saw his future bright and happy. However, in fact, there would be many bright colours in it, but hardly they were happy...

A step away from immortality

Gauguin would forget about happiness for a few more years. The family remained in Copenhagen, Mette literally drove her husband out, as he was unable to provide for his family. In Paris, he often had to go hungry and take on the lowest paid job in order to feed himself somehow. Gauguin moved to Brittany, stayed for a short time in Arles, visited Panama and Martinique... Constant need and thirst for something more led him further and further. Gradually, the Gauguin’s imagination showed him the image of the place in which he wanted to get. Childhood in Peru, swimming in distant lands in his youth, Panama, Martinique... He dreamt of sensual swarthy women (who would silently adore him and not demand that he provide them), huts covered with reeds (for living in which he did not have to pay), exotic fruits grew abundantly (which would save him from having to look for money for food).

What a great disappointment had Gauguin when he first got off the ship on the Tahitian coast and saw a completely civilized city with benches and taverns, brick houses and people in European clothes. The artist was late with his arrival here for several decades: during this time the colonists managed to have a serious impact on the islanders’ lifestyle. However, Gauguin found the simple native life he dreamed about in the outmost reaches of the island. And his rich imagination supplemented him what he did not find. The artist began to paint a lot and with inspiration. He preferred cloisonism and synthetism, and gradually honed his own unique style. It was the time when he created many of his most famous works, including "Woman with a flower"(1891), "When the wedding?"(1892), "Woman holding fruit"(1893).

In 1893, Gauguin returned to France, full of confidence that his genius would finally be recognized. Despite the complete lack of money and shaky health (doctors diagnosed syphilis in a neglected form), he is taking home his new paintings in anticipation of triumph. But the artist was met with a new cruel disappointment. His exhibition was a failure, critics and journalists literally trampled him, calling his paintings “fabrications of a sick brain, abuse of Art and Nature”. In addition to everything during a visit to Copenhagen, it turned out that his youngest children did not recognize him at all. Mette, whom the artist wrote letters and sent his works throughout this time, huffed him out of the house and did not want to talk to him. Having received several crushing blows at once, Gauguin decided to leave for the islands again, forever this time.

In 1878, exhausted by poverty and illness, broken by the news of the death of his beloved daughter Alina, the artist realized that nothing else held him in this world. In parting, he decided to create a real masterpiece, the canvas "Where did we come from?" Who are we? Where are we going?"  After the work on the painting was completed, Gauguin went to the mountains to die. Afterwards, he cursed himself on all that was holy for not being able to even poison himself, as he had taken too much arsenic.

After this “second birth”, Gauguin’s life surprisingly began to improve. The disease receded for a while, and in Paris, his paintings finally began to be sold. The artist moved to the Marquesas islands, built a large house here and personally decorated it with wooden carvings. The fatherly talent of a journalist suddenly woke up in him, but Gauguin did not forget about his true calling and continued to paint. Here made he his famous canvases  "The gold of their bodies"(1901), "Spell"(1903) and last self portrait(1903).  Drawing himself for the last time, Gauguin finally refused his beloved image of the “savage”, depicting a calm and tired man who has lived a life that was hard but full of impressions.

Paul Gauguin was found dead in his Pleasure House at the age of 54. On the bedside table beside his bed, there was an empty bottle of opium tincture. This time he appeared to do everything right. The last escape was a success.

Written by Yevheniia Sidelnikova


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