Paul Gauguin : : An Essay

This is an essay I wrote while doing an evening course at the University of Limerick 2007 studying the history of art and design. It was 10 years after graduating Limerick School of Art and Design and at that time I was only interested in painting and learning all its fundamentals. Over the years after college, I developed an interest in art history and wanted to learn more so I thought it would be a good idea to go back and study it.

This is an essay I wrote while doing an evening course in the University of Limerick at the time. I chose the artist Paul Gauguin because his work really appealed to me at the time and I became fascinated by his painting titled ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897.

Here it is below and I hope you enjoy. .

‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897

Paul Gauguin, An Essay

Paul Gauguin’s life began in Paris in 1848 and ended in 1903 in the tropics of the South Pacific Islands. As a child Gauguin spent the early years of his childhood in Peru, between 1849-1855 where his parents fled from Paris due to the growing danger that war had brought. These early years may have provoked an interest he had in religion, folk art and primitive art.  He had a deep desire to free himself from the modern civilisations of the western world and so he began to look to the south pacific islands for new inspirations. The key years between 1888 and 1898 saw true artistic development and maturation in Gauguin’s work. Beginning with Vision After the Sermon 1888, and The Yellow Christ 1889, after the crucial meeting with Emile Bernard in Brittany. The Spirit of The Dead Watching 1892 after his first trip to Tahiti and his second voyage to Tahiti where the painting of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897 took place.

Mango Pickers, Martinique, 1887

In April 1887 he left Paris and travelled to the island of Panama and then on to Martinique where his work began to emerge. His visit here was vital to the developed of his way of using colour, line and form. He enjoyed the warmer climate where the light was much brighter and the colours of the landscape were more vibrant than that of Paris. Here he began to use bright, large areas of colour, which was crucial to his emerging new style. He also enjoyed the calm simplicity of the Negro natives that surrounded him. It was their faces that interested him the most and he would make numerous sketches of them in pastel and watercolour which were similar to the drawing style of Edgar Degas, such as Head of a Negress 1887, and Natives, Martinique 1887. In a letter to Emile Schuffenecker (who was a friend of Gauguin’s and a former stock broker, who also turned to painting full time), on July 14th 1887 he writes, ‘…what I find most attractive is the people’s faces; each day there is a continual toing-and-froing of Negro women dressed in colourful rags, with an infinite variety of graceful movements’[1]. Later in another letter to Schuffenecker dated September 1887, he wrights of the brighter colour and light in the landscape and of his satisfaction with them compared to what he has ever produced back in Pont Aven, he writes, ‘…I shall bring a dozen canvases, four of which have figures far superior to those of my Point-Aven period. …Despite my physical weakness, my painting has never been so light, so lucid (with plenty of imagination thrown in).’[2] Good examples of this can be seen in his figurative and landscape paintings, Mango Pickers Martinique 1887, and in particular Seashore, Martinique 1887, where the bright reds of the native’s clothes are sharply contrasted with the ultramarine blues of the background sea.

Martinique Landscape 1887

As a result of his deteriorating health and lack of funds he returned to Paris where he briefly spent time living with the Schuffenecker family when in February 1888 he left Paris to take up residency in Brittany at the Pension Gloanec back in Point-Aven. After his experience in Martinique he had a much clearer idea of what he wanted from his painting. It was in Brittany where the crucial introduction of a young budding artist named Emile Bernard (aged twenty-three) took place and it was he who had influenced the style of Gauguin enormously. Emile Bernard (1868-1941) was a Neo-Impressionists who had a revolutionary experience in August of 1886, during a visit to the studio of Paul Signac who was also a Neo-Impressionists. After the visit Bernard destroyed all his paintings from that era and rejected both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism from then on. He turned to a more symbolic way of painting and his style developed into a technique he called ‘Cloisonnism’. It consisted of painting large areas of flat vivid colours that was outlined by dark lines. We can see evidence of this happening in his painting, Les Bretonnes dans la Prairie 1888, which was considered to be one of the first symbolist paintings at the time. It was paintings such as this that proved vitally important to the work of Paul Gauguin and it was Gauguin who truly mastered the technique.

         Letter to Emile Schuffenecker, with sketch of two boys wrestling, July 1888
Letter to Vincent van Gough, with sketch of two boys wrestling, July 1888

The autumn of 1888 saw the completion of Gauguin’s first major masterpiece called Vision After the Sermon. This was a key work that marked the true beginning of Symbolism and soon after Gauguin became leader of the Symbolist School in Pont-Avon. Bernard’s symbolic work had an enormous influence on Gauguin and like Bernard, he was also very interested in Japanese prints at the time for their compositional and primitive values. Vision After the Sermon was similar to a typical day of Breton life where he depicts a group of young Breton women gathered in a group to hear a Priest telling the Biblical story of Jacob fighting with the Angel. This painting, although at the time thought by a critic Octave Maus who considered it to be of ‘greathilarity’[3], would be recognised as a huge success in the subject of symbolism a short time after. The viewer can see that from the woman to the very left of the painting who is praying, and the Priest to the very right who was most probably preaching a ceremony, that this is a painting of religious subject matter. Gauguin carefully thought out the symbolic features in this painting and it was very powerful as a result of the figure placement juxtaposed with the tree and the image of the vision that the women were having. The tree slices diagonally across the scene separating the women from the vision of Jacob fighting the Angel. From the woman to the left of centre of the painting who is looking up towards the top right, the viewer’s attention is automatically drawn to the two figures wrestling which was the vision they were having. Gauguin’s vivid use of the colour red in the background was very suggestive of the bloody fight that took place and perhaps was also to portray the tension that it brought. The fight itself recalls a previous work by Gauguin titled, Lutte Bretonne of June 1888, where he paints two Breton boys wrestling by a river. From this work one can see his style slightly move away from the influences of Edgar Degas as Gauguin begins to break down and simplify colour. In a letter to Emile Schuffnecker that July 1888 Gauguin wrights: ‘ I have just finished several nudes that will please you. And not at all Degas’s style. The last is a fight between 2 boys near the river, quite Japanese by a Peruvian savage. It has very little execution, green grass and upper part white.’[4] From studying this work one can see Gauguin’s confidence with experimentation begin to emerge and it is possible to say that he applied ideas from Lutte Bretonne to the image of the vision in Vision After the Sermon. This new, more expressive way of using colour and symbolic images was a key feature in Gauguin’s developing new technique and was the beginning of symbolism for him. It became a key feature in his work from 1888 onwards. From ‘Vision After the Sermon’ Gauguin changed the way he painted nature and he started to use spirituality more in his work. In another letter to Schuffenecker in August 14th that year he writes of using more of the imagination and less of painting exact from nature, ‘ …One piece of advice: do not copy too much from nature. Art is an abstraction; extract it from nature while dreaming in front of it and pay more attention to the act of creation than the result. That’s the only way of advancing towards God, by imitating our divine master and creating.’[5]

Vision After The Sermon 1888

In Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ 1889, one can see evidence of Gauguin’s growing religious, spiritual and imaginative approach to the landscape. It is another key work of Gauguin’s where its religious content and its colours are much more adventurous and brighter than ever before. He uses yellow predominantly in this work. The positioning of Christ on the crucifix is unusually high up and to the foreground of the painting. Again he is painting a vision that the Breton women were having while praying in the fields. However, this time he includes the baron landscape surroundings that draws the attention away from the crucifixion and on towards the simple everyday life of the Breton the people continuing on in the background. The landscape is treated with a less naturalistic approach where the fields are of brightly coloured yellows and the trees of bright oranges. He also paints a farmer and two Breton women climbing over a wall at the end of the field with their backs turned to the Crucifixion, walking off in the direction of the houses or village below at the end of the hill. Gauguin took ideas for the figure of Christ from sketches he had previously drawn of a wooden carving of the crucifix that hung in an ancient chapel of Trémalo near Point-Aven. The pain and sorrow on Christ’s face in the wooden carving was well accomplished in the painting and it was very true to the carving.

The Yellow Christ, 1889

At the time of painting The Yellow Christ impressionism was still relatively new to both the artist and the audience, however Gauguin turned his back on the impressionists and he despised their new found technique of painting colour called Pointillism that took hold in 1886. He did not agree with the scientific approach of pointillism with the painting of colour and form. He instead wanted to be free when painting and to paint expression and emotion without being scientific about the colour shape and form of nature and it was with The Yellow Christ that he developed the synthetic approach. He spoke of the Impressionists in one of his Intimate Journals as: ‘ The Impressionists study colour exclusively but without freedom, always shackled by the need for probability… They need only the eye, and neglect the mysterious centres of thought, so falling into merely scientific reasoning.’[6]

Gauguin became more and more preoccupied by mystery and expression in his work. He wanted absolute freedom in his painting and to accomplish this he wanted to leave Paris and look for new, untouched surroundings away from western civilisation. So in 1891 he left Paris again and sailed ship in April 14th to travel back to the South Pacific Islands where he arrived in Tahiti to live the life of a savage. The Tahitians were very superstitious people and in 1892 he painted the nude Spirit of The Dead Watching. This painting was another important key work in Gauguin’s life as an artist. It was a strong imaginative work of large mysterious content and at the time it was his favourite work. He had even spoken of his desire to either keep it or sell it for a very good price in a letter he wrote to his wife Mette Gauguin that is quoted further on.  The painting was of a young Maori girl who was positioned lying on her stomach across a bed with her face partly showing. At the post by the end of her bed stood a dark mystic figure that gave a sinister mode to the painting. The colours were of dark tones that had strong symbolic purpose. The Tahitian people believed that when a person died, their spirit came back to the living by night and the fear that it brought was what Gauguin was trying to portray on the girl’s face. Her facial fear was painted with great synthesis and not only her face but also her whole body. It was stiffened by fear into an awkward position that looked uncomfortable and her hands were placed on her pillow at either side of her head with fingers flattened out and frozen still. The lighting in the room was dull with no real sense of direction where the glow was coming from. The purple colouring of the wall in the background was juxtaposed with slight hints of blues, oranges and yellows that together symbolised life and death. This is possibly to give the illusion that the mysterious figure at the end of the bed was in fact the dead spirit that the girl was imagining watching her. 

Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892
Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1886

From looking at the composition of The Spirit of The Dead Watching, one may be reminded of Edouard Manet’s Olympia of 1863. Gauguin was a big admirer of this work and he even painted a copy of it in his version The Loss of Virginity 1990. It was of a Breton landscape and its scale was slightly smaller than Manet’s Olympia, which held similar dull lighting and compositional qualities. The figure in the painting lies across the foreground in a similar position to Olympia and its toneless flatness and lack of shading makes the figure stand out from the background landscape that was painted in contrasting dark tones. Gauguin included symbolic images including a fox that was a symbol of perversity and its positioning suggests that it is restraining the figure. The figure is also holding a cyclamen flower in her hand however there is little known to clarify what he was symbolising here. In both The Loss of Virginity and The Spirit of The Dead Watching we can see the similar fears that the figures had with the stiffened and uncomfortable pose they were in. The fear is also suggested in the titles of each work that are describing a fearful act that the innocent young girls were imagining.

Study for Loss of Virginity
Loss of Virginity, 1890

Gauguin sent The Spirit of The Dead Watching together with eight other works he completed at the time to his wife Mette who was living in Copenhagen for exhibition in Paris. As mentioned previously, Gauguin favoured this work over all his other works and he wanted to get a good price for it. He sent the paintings with a letter he wrote to Mette, detailing the nine works titles and information. He left the pricing of them up to his her accept for three paintings that he numbered, two; Aha Oe Feii? (Are You Jealous?), three; Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of The Dead Watching) and four; Parahi Te Marae (There Lies The Temple. He wrote in the letter asking Mette to put certain prices on the three works saying, ‘…With the exception of three canvases, I leave it to you to fix the prices, but I want them to be higher than my canvases from France. As for no. 2, not less than 800 francs, as for no. 3, not less than 1500 francs, I would even keep back the latter for much later on. As for no. 4, not less than 700 francs’.[7] From this writing it is clear to be seen that Gauguin had great confidence in his work and it shows that the freedom he gained in Tahiti was fundamental to his continuing exploration and creativity.  Although he favoured The Spirit of The Dead Watching over all he had painted at that time, it was not be until five years on when he painted his finest masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897, he came to believe was his best ever work ‘…I will never do a better one or another like it…’[8] The year 1893 saw the short return of Gauguin to Paris due financial poverty, an eye disease and loneliness. He rented a studio in Rue Vercingétorix where he continued to paint and soon after, he made his final trip back to the South Pacific Islands in 1895.

Two years after arriving in Tahiti for the second time he painted his famous Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897. This was a work that took almost all the energy from him for reasons of deteriorating health and news of his daughter Aline’s death, which dragged him into a deepening depression. He had plans to commit suicide by January 1898 if his life and financial problems did not improve.  He wanted to create one last masterpiece before he died that would sum up all his ideas and beliefs. Due to his poverty, he was forced to paint Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? on unprimed surface called sackcloth that contained several knots and lumps. The painting was intentionally his largest work, a mural sized work of 141cm x 376cm.  It was highly imaginative and again of mysterious nature where he painted immediately from his thoughts, without using live nudes or preparatory drawings. His intentions were to portray the primitive lifestyle of the Tahitian natives using Christian-like religious visual imagery. To the right of the painting one can relate the image of the three women and the child with the dog sitting close by, to the birth of Christ. The figure in the centre can be compared with the crucifixion or with the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve picking the forbidden fruit. Also in the background centre the impression of an empty tomb recalls the resurrection. It can also be said, because of the death of his daughter that prompted him to paint this work, that he was toying with life and death. At the very left of the work he painted a Tahitian girl sitting closely beside a death-like figure.

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

On completion of this masterpiece Gauguin had worked himself to exhaustion point as he worked hard at it non-stop. He was very pleased with the finished piece even after standing back and noticing some technical flaws in it. He was not concerned with the mathematics of it, but more the imagery and ideas he had wanted to bring across. In the following letter he wrote in March 1898 to his close friend and agent, Daniel de Monfried, he spoke of how he viewed the work and the important question it brought to him as an artist,

‘…I look at it constantly and (I must admit) I do indeed admire it. The more I realize its enormous mathematical defects, but not for anything will I fix them; it will remain just as it is, a sketch it you like. But at the same time this question arises and I am perplexed: where does the painting of a picture begin and where does it end? At the instant when extreme feelings are merging in the deepest core of one’s being, at the instant when they burst and all one’s thoughts gush forth like lava from a volcano, isn’t that where the suddenly created work erupts, brutally perhaps, but in a grand and apparently superhuman way? Reason’s cold calculations have not led to this eruption; but who can say exactly when the work was begun in one’s heart of hearts? Perhaps it unconscious…[9]

Letter to Daniel de Monfreid, February 1898, with sketch of
Where Do We Come From? What Are We?
Where Are We Going?

At this time it can be said from the observations of these four works, Vision After the Sermon 1888, The Yellow Christ 1889, The Spirit of The Dead Watching 1892 and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897 that Paul Gauguin was a truly gifted artist who developed highly creatively and consistently throughout his career as an artist. His lack of concern and desire for the daily routine of the modern western civilised world that he turned his back on and his devotion to his art and ambitions that he treated with such synthesis and honesty, carried through at all times. It certainly made him the artist he was, which led the path for the younger artists and art movements that followed including Expressionism in particular Ernst Ludwig Kirchner among other Brucke artists and he also had a large influence on Fauvism. The question his final true masterpiece raised to him was and still is fundamental to all artists, past and present.



  1. Thomson, Belinda, ‘Gauguin’, Thames and Hudson Ltd Publishers, London, 1987, (reprinted 1997).
  2. Thomson, Belinda, ‘Gauguin by Himself’,Belinda Thomson (editor), Little, Brown and Company, London, 2000.
  3. Walther, Ingo F, ‘Paul Gauguin 1848-1903, The Primitive Sophisticate’, Taschen Publishers, Germany, 2006.
  4. Elger, Dietmar, ‘Expressionism, A Revolution in German Art’, Taschen Publishers, Germany, 2002.
  5. Goldwater, Robert, ‘Paul Gauguin, The Library of Great Painters’, Harry N. Abrams, Inc Publishers, New York, (date not available).

[1] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p45

[2] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p46

[3] Ingo F. Walther, Paul Gauguin 1848-1903, The Primitive Sophisticate, (Germany), 2006 p. 29

[4] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p86

[5] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p89

[6] Robert Goldwater, The Paul Gauguin, The Library of Great Painters, (New York), (date not available) p92

[7] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p179

[8] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, p258

[9] Belinda Thomson (editor), Gauguin by Himself, (UK),2000, pp258, 259

Published by Derval Freeman

Graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design 1996 Fine art painter and photographer

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