By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021
Born Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin in Paris to a relatively-privileged family, the artist was a painter, printmaker and writer who worked in wood, ceramics and stoneware. He travelled widely and painted in what were, in those times (and still are), exotic locations. This is significant in that the first commercial cameras were only sold when he was 40 (by the Eastman company) so he captured an era as nobody else could do. And this travel became part and parcel of his development of what is termed ‘primitivism’, art which accentuates body-parts in a way that is typical of totem-poles and similar in the Americas.
Although he was not commercially successful in his lifetime, he was recognised by other artists of the period – notably Edgar Degas who was a great friend, Vincent Van Gogh with whom he had a troubled friendship, Camille Pissarro who was a friend for a while, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec whom he knew – as a genius with colour. Not all of his contemporaries rated Gauguin. Monet and Renoir certainly didn’t. Yet later Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were to be hugely inspired by his work.
Gauguin died rather suddenly at 55 which might seem young but in that era life-expectancy was only 40. At the time his assets were auctioned off for just 4,000 francs. One of his paintings was bought be a French naval officer on behalf of the governor. In 2004 that painting was sold at Sotheby’s for a little short of USm.
Gauguin was born during a year in which many countries in Europe - including France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Belgium, Spain and Ireland - were in the greatest upheaval it has ever seen. Moreover something similar was happening in South America and elsewhere. This was significant because Gauguin’s dad Clovis Gauguin was a reporter who upset the authorities (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew was in power) and so the family was forced to flee France in 1850. Meanwhile Clovis Gauguin’s partner, Paul Gauguin’s mum Aline Chazal, had revolutionary socialist parents with connections to prominent Peruvians. So the Gauguins set off for Peru when they fled Paris. Unfortunately Clovis Gauguin died on the voyage leaving Aline Chazal a widow looking after little Paul and his slightly older sister. Fortunately Aline Chazal’s mum was related to the man about to assume the Peruvian presidency. So they were looked after royally. But only for 4 years before political turbulence forced them to flee back to France where Paul was left with his grandfather in Orleans and his mum went to work as a dressmaker in Paris.
Paul Gauguin was to go to a succession of good schools, finishing in a lycée. During this period he joined the merchant navy then the navy itself, having had pilot’s training. Between 1862 and 1871 he studied and served for a total of 8 years during which he obviously acquired a taste for travel on voyages to places including India.
In 1871 he quit and became a stockbroker. Then in 1873 he married a Dane called Mette-Sophie Gad, a woman who was well aware that he’d begun to paint in his spare time, and with whom he was to have five children. He could afford it. By 1879 he was making today’s equivalent of around £¼m a year from his work and art-dealing. But in 1882 the Paris stock-market crashed and with it his earnings (half of which was from selling his own work and that of others) so he quit with the intention of becoming a full-time artist. In 1883 it looked like his friend the artist Pissarro was going to help him. But that didn’t last and by 1886 they’d fallen out altogether. So in 1884 he found himself moving to Denmark, in all probability to keep the marriage together, and appears to have been likewise press-ganged into becoming a tarpaulin salesman. But he didn’t speak Danish, the Danes didn’t want his French tarpaulins, and his wife didn’t want him painting full-time. So, within a year, Mette-Sophie booted him out. He returned to Paris the next year but within five years or so had lost contact with her and their children except his six-year-old son Clovis – and within 10 years she had ended everything. In all fairness Mette-Sophie was to have a hard time of it and resorted to teaching. Though, tellingly, she kept his art collection.
Gauguin had interest in his work but lacked the sales and was pitched into pretty-desperate poverty. His son became unwell and was packed off to a boarding-school by Gauguin’s sister. He took on some menial jobs, didn’t paint much, and probably got himself into too many arguments about impressionism which somehow disappointed him and had largely lost its appeal for the public anyway.
Yet it wasn’t all bad. He spent some time at an artists’ colony in Brittany because it was cheap, and found that he was a popular figure owing to his painting, boxing, fencing and Bohemian – i.e. socially unconventional – dress and mannerisms.
By this period he was becoming increasingly interested in African and Oriental art, especially Japanese art after Japan had been opened up in 1853 so that two centuries of creativity spilled out and prints by Hokusai and the like were all over Europe. Gauguin and others were intrigued by their lack of perspective (which owed much to the supposed progress made during the Renaissance being utterly alien to the Japanese), their flat ungraded colours and their bold black outlines (see his ‘Yellow Christ’ which is a prime example of Cloisonnism – after the metalwork technique cloisonné that separates gems and the like by metal strips). This could be described as ‘modernism’ though, ironically, you’ll hear it described as ‘primitivism’ too. What’s in a word? Such art is also not thought to be ‘synthetist’ in that it was meant to be a more complex post-impressionist product that had an outward appearance of natural forms, conveyed the artist's feelings about their subjects and had aesthetically pure line, colour and form.
After travelling to Panama Gauguin pitched up in Martinique where he stayed in a rudimentary native’s hut and got sick. But he still painted a little, taking a real interest in the island’s inhabitants. He also met Vincent Van Gogh there, and his brother Theo, and later painted with Vincent’s studio in France after Theo had bought three of the 11 paintings Gauguin executed whilst on Martinique.
1890 saw Gauguin in Tahiti, having sold some work in Paris and after seeing his wife and children in Denmark for the last time. He had promised to escape European civilisation and yet return rich, though of course the irony was that his market, if he was to become rich, was always going to be in Europe.
He fell in love with Tahiti and its people, keeping very detailed notes of all he saw. Controversially he appears to have bigamously married a 13-year old girl called Teha'amana on the day they met. This is in context. There has long been supposition that Gauguin had cardiovascular syphilis. Though he did ultimately die of a heart attack there is archaeological evidence that he wasn’t having mercury pills as was common at the time to treat this disease. Nevertheless he left this girl with a child in 1892 and never went back to see her even when he returned to the island.
In 1893 Gauguin was back in France. He’d sold the odd picture in Denmark but was still on his uppers so appears to have got the French Government to repatriate him, a trick he was to use repeatedly. Things picked up in Paris. He inherited money from his uncle but gave very little to his wife Mette-Sophie never mind Teha'amana. And he continued his Bohemian ways, dressing like a Polynesian and having an affair with a Malayan-Indian Javanese called Annah (who apparently looted his apartment). He had another spell in the Brittany colony then seems to have wanted to go back to Tahiti though sales were poor and he was broke again. His work including ceramics were seen by many as pornographic and galleries were reluctant to show them. And Gauguin was disillusioned once more, if not disgusted, by Paris. So it seems his pals had a whip-round in 1895 to find the fare. Ultimately he was never to return.
Gauguin was to spend the rest of his days in Tahiti then (from 1901) in Atuona on the Marquesas Islands off them. He carved a place in society and took another native wife - Pau’ura - who was just 14½ when he met her and had two children though she appeared to be less-than-besotted with Gauguin. He seemed to see-saw between being quite comfortable, and indeed he built a couple of spacious homes, and being in such severe straits that he felt he needed to take an administrative job. At times he had guaranteed income though he had to paint and sell a lot of paintings cheaply to secure it. His ceramics didn’t appeal and it wouldn’t have helped that he had problems getting the clay. In the end he became a newspaper editor to give himself stability.
Other than the predilection for young girls his Bohemian life continued, though somehow he could square that with the Christian beliefs that are evidenced in some of his paintings. But he certainly upset the local church when they realised the walls of his home were plastered with European pornography (after his death many of his belongings were deemed to be pornographic and destroyed). It is not clear what they thought of him identifying with Christ so closely given some of Gauguin’s behaviours, though he seemed to think he was meant to suffer.
He had lows. And not just because of his finances. The illness would have been debilitating. He also smashed an ankle in a fight, with the injury so bad that it never healed. He was a heavy drug-user. His favourite daughter - Aline - predeceased him having contracted pneumonia. And he admitted to being suicidal when he painted his last great work – ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’
Soon after his death, ironically, his career took off. And remember that before then this is a painter whose work was deemed to be less marketable than that of Van Gogh who, as we all know, sold precious little. In 1906 the Salon d’Automne showed 227 of Gauguin’s paintings. And the 4th most expensive painting in the world, ‘When Will You Marry?’, fetched US0m in 2014.
In summary Paul Gauguin was an odd contradiction. He was capable of being sufficiently disciplined to levade a court-martial for almost a decade in the navy. He was focused enough to thrive in the pressurised environment of the stock-market. He was sufficiently self-motivated to teach himself to be a world-class painter and more. Yet ultimately he just wanted to paint, pop drugs and procreate. Indeed his predilection for young girls would have, even in those times, meant he sailed - even for a trained pilot as he was - very close to the wind. His three ‘marriages’ and at least eight children (there was also a mistress in France it seems) testify to his wayward behaviour. But, in his defence, many of the most creative people have never been conformist or particularly good at forming relationships that endure.
You can easily and affordably buy unframed prints of his work. Some of them would certainly raise a few eyebrows even today. But if you don’t mind that try www.fineartprintsondemand.com/artists/gauguin/prints.htm.
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Article Posted: 08/03/2021 10:46:52