Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His father was a radical journalist, and his mother the daughter of a Peruvian-born feminist. At that time, Napoleon had seized power, and his political opponents tended to disappear, so the Gauguin family retreated to Peru. His father died during the journey, but the Gauguins remained in Peru until Paul was eight years old.

Returning to France, Paul hated its dullness compared to Peru. At 17, he joined the merchant navy, and latterly performed his National Service also in the navy.

At the age of 23, Paul settled into a post with a leading Paris stockbroker, and raised a family. He enjoyed wealth and a good business reputation. He started to paint as a hobby, and took lessons from the Impressionist Camille Pissarro. He met the leading impressionist of the day, and even bought some of their work. By 1879, he had started to exhibit his own paintings at their shows.

Paul contemplated becoming a professional artist, but in 1882 a stock-market crash helped him to reach the decision to resign the following year, from his now insecure job. Within a further year, his full time painting had yielded little return, and his savings were gone. At the insistence of his wife, they “downsized” and move to her native home - Demark. In 1885, Paul effectively left his family to continue his career as an artist in France.

Briefly, he failed to settle, and made his way to the French West Indies, but was forced to return to France when he was penniless and his health failing.

He visited Vincent van Gogh in Arles, but after two months, van Gogh went famously insane, attacking Paul with a razor. In 1891, having found no stability in France, Paul returned to the West Indies, and settled in Tahiti. Here he found peace, but little else, and ill health (syphilis) and poverty once again forced his return to France in 1893. This time he managed to persuade a leading Paris gallery owner to exhibit his work, but by 1895 he was on his way back to Tahiti once more.

Paul remained in Tahiti for 8 years, but disgusted by the colonial society’s effect on the Tahitians, he wrote venomous articles for the local newspaper, and made enemies. In 1901, he abandoned Tahiti, and moved to the Marquesas Islands. Money was starting to come-in from the Paris gallery, but he continued to attack the colonial administration, and Catholic Church. In 1903, the authorities took their revenge, and Paul was sentenced to imprisonment for deformation. He never served his sentence: he died while awaiting the outcome of his appeal.

Paul Gauguin’s artistic drive was to express ideas and emotions. His style of painting rejected the notion that a picture has to represent something we can see in the real world. For example, he used bright red in an unnatural way to set the emotional tone of a painting. He painted large areas of flat unbroken colour, rather than build up colour with small dashes of paint, as the Impressionist had done.  Materials were not readily available, so he used sacking rather than canvas, and spread paint very thinly to make it go further.

Three years after Gauguin’s death, 227 paintings were exhibited in Paris, and his reputation was established among the progressive artists of the day.

Gauguin was a significant artist in as much that he influenced others to invent different ways of painting and, altered approaches to expression through paint. However, I do not empathise with the notion that feelings can be conveyed or induced in others effectively through colour and abstraction of from. Gauguin’s art demands explanation (e.g. why is the grass red, or the sand pink?). It therefore fails to communicate with the viewer. We need words or prior knowledge to qualify the viewing experience. A quote attributed to Paul Gauguin eloquently sums-up my feelings about the merits of his art – “Art has increasingly become the concern of the artist and the bafflement of the public.”

Great artists all appear to be revolutionaries, and are applauded for breaking with tradition, yet in truth most do little more than reinvent the wheel. Gauguin’s main influence, after impressionism, was primitive art. In opening the way forward to the development of Primitivism, his followers have achieved little more than encouragement of regression to a less expressive form of art.

Portraits by John Burton

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Portrait artist working mainly from clients' own photographs.

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Paul Gauguin