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Paul Gauguin Photo

Paul Gauguin

French Draftsman, Painter, Printmaker, and Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Post-Impressionism, Symbolism

Born: June 7, 1848 - Paris, France

Died: May 8, 1903 - Atuona, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

Paul Gauguin Timeline

Important Art by Paul Gauguin

The below artworks are the most important by Paul Gauguin - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Still-Life with Fruit and Lemons (ca. 1880)

Still-Life with Fruit and Lemons (ca. 1880)

Artwork description & Analysis: Composed while Gauguin was still working full time as a stockbroker and painting was little more than a hobby to him, this still-life reveals the artist's natural technical skill with brush and canvas. The subject matter is also standard Impressionist fare, and is a clear indicator of Gauguin's early influencers, which included Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. Gauguin's rendering of the tablecloth in particular also shows the strong influence of Cézanne, whose own still-lifes used similar effects of outline and shading.

Oil on canvas - Museum Langmatt, Baden, Switzerland

Four Breton Girls (1886)

Four Breton Girls (1886)

Artwork description & Analysis: Unlike others who painted rural French subjects in the 1880s, Gauguin chose to depict four Breton girls in a field in no simple documentary, or realist manner. Much of the landscape visible in this work suggests Gauguin's roots in Impressionism and its attendant ideal to capture the visual dalliance of a landscape on the artist's eye, or retina. But Gauguin pushes that recent heritage to new purposes, placing the girls in dance-like formation; emphasizing the massive flow of their dresses; creating profiles and silhouettes of portraits and figures suggesting paper dolls...these and other artistic manipulations of the subject begin to serve a symbolic purpose, suggesting that deeper meanings are hidden behind the superficial appearances of reality. In this "synthetic" work, Gauguin thus fuses elements of visual accuracy with distortions of design and composition that speak of the girls' mystical union with nature; indeed, they collectively assume the formation of a grove of botanical specimens, a lively school of fishes, or a flock of birds in an unseen, overhead canopy. Faces, figures, clothing, and landscape each assume equal importance in this democratic arena, in which girls interlock their limbs as effortlessly as if they had originally grown that way.

Oil on canvas - Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Self-Portrait 'Les Miserables' (1888)

Self-Portrait 'Les Miserables' (1888)

Artwork description & Analysis: Just prior to Gauguin's departure for Arles in late 1888, Gauguin and the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh sent each other examples of their respective work, including a number of self-portraits. This composition by Gauguin was included among the exchanges. In this work, Gauguin includes a likeness, in full profile, of the fictional character Jean Valjean, the morally upright but perpetually socially persecuted hero of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862). Sporting a solemn look, tousled hair, and tired eyes, Gauguin clearly intends to draw a parallel between himself and Valjean, whose petty crime of the past (he once stole a loaf of bread) forever brands him a criminal, no matter of his subsequent virtues. Van Gogh later recalled being deeply impressed by Gauguin's uncommonly bold applications of color.

Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vision After the Sermon (Jacob's Fight with the Angel) (1888)

Vision After the Sermon (Jacob's Fight with the Angel) (1888)

Artwork description & Analysis: Vision after the Sermon represents a significant departure from the subject matter of Impressionism, namely the city or rural landscape, which was still quite prevalent in Europe and the United States during the last two decades of the 19th century. Instead of choosing to paint pastoral landscape or urban entertainments, Gauguin depicted a rural Biblical scene of praying women envisioning Jacob wrestling with an angel. The decision to paint a religious subject was reminiscent of the Renaissance tradition, yet Gauguin rendered his subject in a decidedly modern style derived in part from Japanese prints, his own experiments in ceramics, stained-glass window methods, and other popular and "high art" traditions, finally emphasizing bold outlines and flat areas of color.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Yellow Christ (1889)

The Yellow Christ (1889)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Yellow Christ is a strong example of both Cloisonnism (a style characterized by dark contours and bright areas of color separated by bold outlines) and Symbolism (in which subject matter is idealized or romanticized in some fashion). The painting's predominant imagery, the crucified Christ, is evident, but Gauguin places the scene in the north of France during the peak season of Autumn foliage, indeed as women in 19th-century garb gather at the foot of the cross. It remains for the viewer to decide whether the vision is conjured in the minds of the pious or physically manifest in the contemporary landscape.

Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch) (1892)

Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch) (1892)

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Gauguin's most famous works, Manao Tupapau is an excellent example of how Gauguin relished combining the ordinary with suggestions of the extraordinary in a single canvas, thus leaving all final interpretation open to debate. As he relates in a period diary, the actual scenario was inspired by his return home late one night and finding his wife, depicted here naked in the tropical heat, suddenly startled by his strike of a match in the all-enveloping darkness. Gauguin captures the luminous, unreal look of the sub-equatorial interior, here decorated by floral textiles, or batiks, along with other earthy materials, all suddenly illuminated by a momentary chemical combustion. At the same time, Gauguin introduces a ghostly depiction of a "watching" female spirit, seemingly harmless, at the foot of the bed, a direct reference to a local folklore describing how such spirits roam the night and forever share the world of the living.

This same painting also illustrates well how Gauguin remained forever a child of the 19th century, while nonetheless functioning as a bellwether, or beacon, to a younger generation. Most of his work remained rooted in the natural world around him, a legacy of his roots in Impressionism. But in some instances, Guaguin even speaks to the work of a former master, such as in this work, which for many eyes continues a precedent of the everyday, un-idealized nude set by Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863). Yet Gauguin's work finally suggests, like that of his even more Symbolist contemporaries Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau (both were more closely aligned than Gauguin with French Symbolist poetry of the day), that underneath the world of "rock solid" appearances lies a parallel realm of eternal mystery, spiritual import, and poetic suggestion.

Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897)

Artwork description & Analysis: Gauguin's late-century magnum opus, painted in Tahiti, communicates a story in three stages from right to left, each stage corresponding to a question in the painting's title, which Gauguin inscribed, notably without question marks, in the upper left corner. The first stage of life, on the far right, is that of childhood; the second stage of young adulthood; the last stage of life's impending closure, here found at the far left, where, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts." Unlike earlier attempts by Gauguin, this grand composition, derived partly from a long tradition of "stage-of-life" painting in Western societies, is not explicitly religious but, rather, more personal and obscurely spiritual. This is much in keeping with Gauguin's late-in-life retreat from European society into a culture native to what was then French Polynesia.

In employing such an evocative, yet oblique title, Gauguin alludes to his own increasingly philosophical and mystical tendencies of his mature years. He had always been linked by his contemporaries with a Symbolist movement in painting that was closely allied to French poetry of the 1880s and 90s, but rarely did he, himself, attach overtly philosophical or literary references to his canvases. In Where Do We Come From?, then, Gauguin is apparently looking back on a life spent largely apart from his own social and geographic wellsprings, and perhaps seeking mental, spiritual, and physical grounding in a world he consciously elected to serve as his "alternative reality."

Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Two Tahitian Women (1899)

Two Tahitian Women (1899)

Artwork description & Analysis: As Gauguin's time in Tahiti was coming to a close, he departed from his usual Symbolist style in order to paint portraits of Tahitian women, whose beauty, form, and lack of shame at their partial nudity (decidedly unlike many 19th-century European womens' regard of the naked body) at once fascinated, attracted, and inspired him. This double portrait is typical of Gauguin's later work, much of which reflected the artist's deep love of nature. As learned from the benefit of hindsight, it should perhaps be noted that Gauguin's painterly vision of the islands was, in large measure, a romantic one, the place and its people in turn exoticized, sexualized, and otherwise exaggerated by a painter in search of a viable alternative to what he perceived to be Western society's own cultural shortcomings.

Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY



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Paul Gauguin Photo

Related Art and Artists

The Large Bathers (1898-1906)

The Large Bathers (1898-1906)

Artist: Paul Cézanne

Artwork description & Analysis: The Large Bathers is one of the finest examples of Cézanne's attempt at incorporating the modern, heroic nude in a natural setting. The series of very human nudes, no Greco-Roman nymphs or satyrs, are arranged into a variety of positions, like objects of still life, under the pointed arch formed by the intersection of trees and the heavens. The figures are devoid of any particular personality - the artist assembles them for purely structural purposes. Here Cézanne is reinterpreting an iconic Western motif of the female nude, but in an exceptionally radical way. The sheer size of the painting is monumental, confronting the viewer directly with abbreviated shapes that resolve themselves into the naked limbs of his sitters. This is not yet abstraction, but in such instances Cézanne has already moved beyond the figurative tradition.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Rouen Cathedral: The Facade at Sunset (1894)

Rouen Cathedral: The Facade at Sunset (1894)

Artist: Claude Monet

Artwork description & Analysis: Monet's Rouen Cathedral: The Facade at Sunset series is one of his most renowned. He painted the cathedral at different times of day to explore the effects of different light during winter. The burnt orange and blue appearance of the cathedral dominates the canvas, with only scattered views of sky at the top. Layered over the top of the Gothic structure, the brushstrokes play with the light and atmosphere on the stones, and the details on their carved surfaces. In 1895, he exhibited twenty Cathedrals at the Durand-Ruel Gallery that were both criticized and praised by viewers that either struggled or championed his artistic, scientific, and poetic innovations. As art historian Madalena Dabrowski wrote: "the site is [only] a reference point, but is transformed and conditioned by light, color, and Monet's own vision."

Painting in a series, or making any kind of artwork with subtle changes from one piece to the next has been a staple of modern art for many artists, from Andy Warhol to the Minimalists, to Conceptual artists. Not only has it been a way for artists to explore subtle difference between subjects, but some artists reference Monet directly in their series works.

Oil on canvas - Museums of Fine Arts, Boston

Starry Night (1889)

Starry Night (1889)

Artist: Vincent van Gogh

Artwork description & Analysis: Starry Night is often considered to be Van Gogh's pinnacle achievement. Unlike most of his works, Starry Night was painted from memory, and not out in the landscape. The emphasis on interior, emotional life is clear in his swirling, tumultuous depiction of the sky - a radical departure from his previous, more naturalistic landscapes. Here, Van Gogh followed a strict principal of structure and composition in which the forms are distributed across the surface of the canvas in an exact order to create balance and tension amidst the swirling torsion of the cypress trees and the night sky. The result is a landscape rendered through curves and lines, its seeming chaos subverted by a rigorous formal arrangement. Evocative of the spirituality Van Gogh found in nature, Starry Night is famous for advancing the act of painting beyond the representation of the physical world.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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