At the heart of symbolism

A life's quest


Self-portrait close to the Golgotha, 1896, detail

Looking for an elsewhere

(Eugène Henri) Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born in Paris in a republican family. His father was a journalist and his mother the daughter of Flora Tristan 1. After the victory of Louis Napoléon, the family immigrated to Peru where Paul spent his innocent childhood days. Alone with her children, the mother returned to France and Paul studied in Orléans. In 1865, he became a sailor and travelled the seas for several years. When the 1870-71 war was over, he worked as an agent with a Stock Exchange broker. In 1872, he undertook painting studies and married, the following year, a young Danish woman named Mette Sophie Gad.

Gauguin was a Sunday painter for years. He only decided to completely devote himself to painting in 1882. After three difficult years, he accompanied his wife and children to Copenhagen. After several fruitless attempts to earn money, he returned to Paris with one of his sons.

Disgusted by modern industrial life, he moved away from the capital. In 1886, he settled in Pont-Aven, a small town of the Brittany Atlantic coast where painters and men of letters used to meet. He made the acquaintance of a student in art, Émile Bernard, a talented and cultivated young man who already knew a fair number of painters among which were Vincent Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec. As a lot of Symbolists, Émile Bernard advocated the superiority of synthesis over analysis. In the beginning, the men did not get on, but they discovered each other in 1888, when Gauguin got back from a trip to Martinique.

Patronized by Camille Pissarro within the Impressionists and influenced by Pierre Puvis of Chavannes within the Symbolists, Gauguin did not know yet what his pictorial way would be. Bernard, on the contrary, saw his quest succeeding with the canvas “Breton Women in the Meadow”.

Gauguin was impressed by the painting and would have exchanged it against one of his canvasses. He drew his inspiration from it to paint the “Vision after the sermon or Jacob wrestling with the Angel”.

However, he did not purely and simply imitate the style of Émile Bernard as the latter said. It is certain that the technique of areas of large flat, uniform colours surrounded by thick dark outlines was well known by painters of that time. Moreover, Gauguin had already used it before. It is also no less certain that Gauguin substituted Bernard's static composition with a depth of field which gives all its visionary character to the canvas. Nevertheless, the two men felt a mutual animosity for a long time.

In the fall of 1888, Paul Gauguin rejoined Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, but returned soon after to Paris, following a disastrous quarrel between these two alternately excited and depressive temperaments. At each return from Brittany, he frequented the café Voltaire where the members of the Symbolist circle used to gather, notably Daniel de Monfreid, Odilon Redon and Stéphane Mallarmé.

He sold some thirty paintings and took his leave of his family and friends before undertaking his first trip to Tahiti in 1891. Sick, he returned prematurely to Paris in 1893. A retrospective of his works hardly knew any success and he decided to go back to Tahiti in 1895. Despite financial and health difficulties, he painted a lot. He was fascinated by the native mythology and opened himself more and more to spirituality in all art domains. His canvasses were covered with symbols derived from Indian, Japanese or pre-Colombian art. Gauguin was essentially Symbolist during his stays in the islands of the southern seas. He died in the Marquesas Islands where he had established himself in 1901. Deeply inspired by non western art, he wanted to develop a synthetic new style breaking radically with the canons of the era.

Simultaneously painter, sculptor and printmaker, he was effectively recognized in 1906 only with the exhibition of 227 of his canvasses in Paris.

Drawing, man with a umbrella

1 back The paternal family of Flora Tristan had Peruvian origins. She actively took part in the fight for the improvement of worker and women's conditions in the 1840s.

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