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Paul Gauguin
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Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
A revolutonary Postimpressionist artist, Paul Gauguin had a profound influence on the radical developments in art at the start of the 20th century. While best known as a painter and printmaker, Gauguin also created inventive ceramics and sculptures. A great stylistic innovator, his influence was wide-ranging and long-lasting. Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848. His father was a Republican journalist and his maternal grandfather was a Peruvian nobleman. After the 1848 coup by Louis Napoléon (1808-1873), Gauguin’s father decided to move the family to Lima, Peru, but died on the voyage. The family lived in Peru for five years before returning to France in 1855. An indifferent student, Gauguin served in the merchant marine and the navy from 1865 until 1871. Through the financier and art collector Gustave Arosa (1816-1878), who had been his guardian since his mother’s death in 1867, Gauguin was introduced to art and obtained a position as a stockbroker at a comfortable income. In 1873 he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850-1920); they had five children together. He started painting with a fellow stockbroker, Émile Schuffenecker (1851-1934). He visited the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and by June had met Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), who became a teacher and mentor. With Pissarro’s advice Gauguin began buying Impressionist paintings and eventually assembled an impressive collection of works by Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pissarro, among others. Gauguin’s own work improved to the point that a landscape was accepted for the 1876 official Salon. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pissarro issued a last-minute invitation for Gauguin to exhibit at the 1879 Impressionist exhibition; he submitted a marble bust of his son Emil. Gauguin spent his holidays painting with Pissarro and Cézanne and participated in the remaining four Impressionist exhibitions. After the Paris stock exchange crashed in 1882, Gauguin lost his investments and his job. He decided to “paint every day," despite a lack of income or patrons. In 1884 Gauguin moved his family to Rouen in search of a lower cost of living; Mette took her children to Copenhagen later that year, where Gauguin later joined them. His wife's parents and the Danish public proved unsympathetic to his art. Ending their lives together, Gauguin left Mette in Copenhagen and went back to Paris in 1885 to pursue an artistic vocation. He began liquidating his art collection to raise funds to live on and received financial support from Schuffenecker, but his health was undermined by hardship. He began making ceramics the next year. The works of Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and Paul Signac (1863-1935) led him to explore the expressive possibilities of color during a five-month stay at Pont-Aven, Brittany. On a trip to Martinique in 1887 Gauguin discovered the brilliant colors and lush textures of the tropical landscape and experienced the charm of a "primitive" community living the "natural" life, but also contracted malaria and dysentery. During his second stay in Pont-Aven in 1888 Gauguin began constructing paintings using large areas of color separated by heavy black outlines, a style called “Cloisonnism” also developed by Émile Bernard (1868-1941), with whom Gauguin collaborated. Entreaties from his friend Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) to join him in Arles led to their unsuccessful attempt to work cooperatively in late 1888, which came to a disastrous end after van Gogh’s mutilation of his left ear. After the jury for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris rejected his submissions, with Schuffenecker’s aid Gauguin organized an exhibition at the nearby Café Volpini of about one hundred works by him, Bernard and six other friends. The exhibition included Gauguin’s set of ten lithographs with a cover printed on yellow paper that became known as “The Volpini Suite.” Gauguin isolated himself in Brittany (1889-90, 1894), Tahiti (1891-93, 1895-1901), and the Marquesas Islands (1901-03) for much of the rest of his life. Suffering from poor health and improverished, the last dozen years of his life became increasingly troubled. Tahiti was not the unspoiled paradise that he sought. His return to Paris in 1893 ended with an unsuccessful auction of his works to raise funds to return to Tahiti, which he did in 1895. While his artistic efforts for a few years produced brilliant results, in 1899 he attempted suicide. He left Tahiti in 1901 for the more primitive Marquesas. While his economic situation improved with support from patrons and the Parisian gallerist Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), his health deteriorated. He died on May 8, 1903. (Rev. TNB 11/2013) Selected bibliography: Bretell, Richard, Françoise Cachin, Claire Freches-Thory, Charles F. Stuckey and Peter Zegers. The Art of Paul Gauguin. Washington: The National Gallery of Art; Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago; Paris: Grand Palais, 1988. Sweetman, David. Paul Gauguin: A Complete Life. London: Hodder & Stroughton, 1995.