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Paul Gauguin
(1848 - 1903)

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Paul Gauguin was born on 7th June, 1848, in Paris as the son of a French journalist and a Peruvian Creole, whose mother had been a writer and a follower of Saint-Simon. 

Venezuela 1914. Simon Bolivar.

His mother's immediate ancestors counted among others the famous South American Liberty Fighter, Simon Bolivar. 

Gauguin was brought up in Lima (Peru), where the family stayed for four years, and after a stint in the French merchant marine, in 1865, he became a successful Parisian stockbroker. 

He settled into a comfortable bourgeois existence with his Danish wife Mette Gad and their five children. 

Paul Gauguin. B/W photograph of Mette Gauguin, née Gad.
  • Venezuela 1914. Simon Bolivar. Scott No. 256.

  • Mette Gauguin, née Gad. Scanned from a contemporary photograph. 

Gabon 1978. Paul Gauguin. Self-Portrait. Mongolia 1978. Paul Gauguin. Ta Matete.  French Polynesia 1984. Paul Gauguin. Woman with Mango.

In 1874 he saw the first Impressionist exhibition, which completely entranced him and confirmed his desire to become a painter. 

Paul Gauguin.  Gauguin by Pissaro, and Pissaro by Gauguin.

He spent some 17,000 francs on works by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Auguste Renoir, which were his base of learning how to paint. Pissarro took a special interest in his attempts at painting, emphasizing that he should "look for the nature that suits your temperament", and already in 1876 Gauguin had a landscape in the style of Pissarro accepted at the Salon. 

In the context it is an interesting detail that both Gauguin and Pissaro were associated with Denmark; Gauguin through his wife Mette Gad, and Pissaro through his Danish citizenship (because of his birth on the Danish West Indies), which he retained throughout his life. 

In 1883-84 the bank that employed him went bankrupt, so Gauguin could now establish a new life as a full-time painter. He settled for a while in Rouen, partly because Paris was too expensive for a man with five children, partly because he thought it would be full of wealthy patrons who might buy his works. Rouen proved a disappointment, and he joined his wife Mette and their children, who had gone back to Denmark, but his experience of Denmark was not a happy one -- he despised the long, cold and dark winters -- and after some years he returned to France. The descendants of Paul and Mette Gauguin still live in Denmark where they are a well known family.  

Cook Islands 1967. Paul Gauguin. Still Life with Flowers.

France 1998. Paul Gauguin. Jacob's Fight with the Angel.

French Polynesia 1968. Paul Gauguin. The Meal.

In the meantime Pissarro had introduced him to Paul Cézanne, for whose works he conceived a great respect -- so much that the older man began to fear that he would steal his "sensations". All three worked together for some time at Pontoise, where Pissarro and Gauguin drew pencil sketches of each other. 

Czech Republic 2000. Paul Gauguin. Fragment of the painting Tahitian Pleasures. Cook Islands 1967. Paul Gauguin. La Orana Maria. German Dem. Republic 1967. Paul Gauguin. Two Tahitian Women.
French Polynesia 1998. Paul Gauguin. Fragment of the painting "Tahitian Pleasures". French Polynesia 1998. Paul Gauguin. First Day Cover "Tahitian Pleasures". Cook Islands 1967. Paul Gauguin. Motherhood.

Gauguin was pre-destined to become one of the leading French painters of the Post-impressionist period, whose development of a conceptual method of representation was a decisive step for 20th-century art. After spending a short period with Vincent van Gogh in Arles (1888), Gauguin increasingly abandoned imitative art for expressiveness through colour. 

Yemen Arab Republic, Paul Gauguin. Two Women on the Beach. USSR 1970. Paul Gauguin. Woman with a Fruit. Yemen Arab Republic 1968. Paul Gauguin. "The Beautiful Angela Satre" (left), and "The Moon and the Earth" (right).

In 1891, ruined and in debt, Gauguin sailed for the South Seas to escape European civilization and "everything that is artificial and conventional". Except for one visit to France from 1893 to 1895, he remained in the Tropics for the rest of his life, first in Tahiti and later in the Marquesas Islands.  A modest stipend from a Parisian art dealer sustained him until his death.  

Yemen Arab Republic 1968. Paul Gauguin. "Woman with Flower" (left), and "When will you marry?" (right). Gabon 1978. Paul Gauguin. Roses in a Bottle and s Small Statue. Yemen Arab Republic 1968. Paul Gauguin. "Nevermore" (left), and "Self-Portrait" (right).

Although his main achievements were to lie elsewhere, Gauguin was, to use a fanciful metaphor, nursed in the bosom of Impressionism. His attitudes to art were deeply influenced by his experience of the first Impressionist exhibition, and he himself participated in those of 1880, 1881 and 1882. 

France 1968. Paul Gauguin. Arearea. France 1968. Paul Gauguin. First Day Cover of "Arearea". Stamp-like label bearing Gauguin's signature.
Plagued by illness (his health was ruined by alcohol and syphilis), depression and financial worries, in 1898 he even attempted suicide, Gauguin still painted numerous masterpieces, such as " Where Do We come from? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" 
  • French Polynesia 1985.  "Where do We come from? What Are We?  Where are We Going?" (1897).

French Polynesia 1985. Paul Gauguin. "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we  going?"

In 1891, he managed to organize a trip to Tahiti at the expense of the French government; there he started his autobiographical Noa Noa (published in 1897). He fell seriously ill, yet sending paintings to Paris, where he did not return until 1893. In 1894 he took a farewell visit to Copenhagen and in 1895 left for Tahiti a second time. 

The below six stamps are from a huge set issued by Ajman-Manama in 1972

Manama 1972. Paul Gauguin. Manao Tupapau. Manama 1972. Paul Gauguin. Barbarian Tales. Manama 1972. Paul Gauguin. Girl with a Fan.

In 1900, after a contract with Vollard, a Parisian dealer, his financial position improved, but his health was irreparably ruined. In 1901 he moved from Tahiti to Atuana on the Island of Dominique in the Marquesas, where his colors grew even more abundant and lush, and where he executed paintings in glowing pink and mauve colours. 

Manama 1972. Paul Gauguin. "So, you are jealous?" Mana,a 1072. Paul Gauguin. Otahi. Manama 1972. Paul Gauguin. Two Tahiti Women.

In 1903, Gauguin was sentenced to three months in prison and fined 1,000 francs because of problems with the church and the colonial administration. Before he could begin his sentence he died, on the 8th of May 1903 in his home in Atuana; Marguesas Islands, in French Polynesia. 

Although the description of him and his life in many respects is the story of a person being ostracized from society, it is also a fact that only rarely the world has experienced a similar separation between the material matters of life, and the creativity Gauguin exposed throughout his career. 
  • France 2006. Paul Gauguin. Tahitian Women, "On the Beach", created 1891. Issued in a booklet of 10 self-adhesive stamps dedicated to the Impressionists. The stamp is a so-called NVI (No Value Indicated), and is permanently valid for domestic letters [within France] up to 20 grams. 

Paul Gauguin is today recognized as the Father of Modern Art, and also the master of both Picasso and Henri Matisse. The Danish art museum, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, houses more than 40 works by Gauguin. 

Honouring the death centenary of Gauguin, the Federate States of Micronesia, and Wallis & Futuna, have issued commemorative stamps featuring Paul Gauguin's art. 

Wallis & Futuna 2003. Study of the heads of Tahitian Women.

Federate States of Micronesia 2003. Souvenir Sheet. Gauguin's death centenary.

As an aside, Paul Gauguin and his life has served as inspiration for the British author William Somerset Maugham's excellent novel "The Moon and Sixpence", in which the main character, the painter Charles Strickland portrays Paul Gauguin. 

Sources and links: 

Many thanks to Victor Manta (Switzerland) for providing part of the images on this page. 

More Post-Impressionist painters on this site:

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Revised 26-sep-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
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