In celebration of Paul Gauguin’s 171st anniversary of his birth, on 7 June 1848
Paul Gauguin started painting relatively late in life, with his first paintings dating to the time when he was working as a stockbroker in Paris. It was only in his mid-thirtyies that he decided to dedicate himself completely to professional painting, after a profund crisis of his marriage with Mette-Sophie Gad, a Danish woman he married in 1873. This impressionist still life, Still Life with Moss Roses in a Basket, was painted by Gaugin upon his return to Paris in 1886 from Denmark, following his decision to dedicate his life to painting.
Impressionism is a style of art that utilises light, color and space to create a mood or feeling. The main proponent of the movement was French artist Claude Monet and several other painters joined this artistic school, including Paul Gauguin. However, his remarkable contribution would not have been possible without the inspiration he received from his time in Polynesia. Although he was influenced by his Polynesian experience, he was also able to create his own style that contributed to the development of a new school of painting. For this reason, Gauguin is considered the founder of the post-impressionist style.
Impressionism began in France when Monet observed the effects of natural light on plants and water while painting a scene en plein air. He later used these elements to create the feel he wanted in his artwork. For example, he would have a window open so that light could flood his studio when he painted a sunny scene. He would also use wet plates so that the water droplets would form the illusion of floating plants in his paintings. He would then apply color to these wet plates to create the effect he wanted. The combination of sunlight and plants creates an image that is bright, colorful and lively – very similar to how Monet wanted his paintings to feel. His time spent painting landscapes in the countryside served as the inspiration for creating this new style of art and gave him a starting point for creating new works of art.
In later years Gauguin pursued his own search of more personal artistic style, moving away from his initial impressionist style and embracing a more primitivist art, influenced by folk art, to be developed further during his later life in Tahiti. This country landscape, painted in Brittany in the summer of 1890, Harvest: Le Pouldu, now exhibited at the National Gallery, with large patches of contrasting colours and bold outlines is an early statement of his progressive views on artistic expression, also called cloisonnism.
Gauguin’s time in Polynesia also helped him further develop his artistic style because it allowed him to depict natural forms like flowers and leaves more realistically than other impressionists. For example, he drew images of a flower floating on water with realistic-looking petals and leaves. He also drew images of the tropical landscape with accurate depictions of trees, cliffs and waterfalls. These images inspired other painters, like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, to further refine their artistic styles and depict natural forms more conceptually than most artists had done before them. In addition, Gauguin’s paintings helped popularize these natural forms in art by making them more accessible to the general public. As a result, Gauguin’s unique artistic style played a big role in shaping modern art trends.
Despite being influenced by his Polynesian experience, Gauguin’s lifestyle choices were also influenced by it. This is evident in the fact that he chose to move back to Tahiti after experiencing poverty at other locations. He felt that he had been blessed with an opportunity unlike any other person on earth and should be grateful for it. Therefore, he decided to focus on creating art that would make people inspired, so they could afford to support him as he created it. This is why it’s important for artists to be financially secure so they don’t feel obligated to give up their art for free support. However, Gauguin chose not to focus on creating money-making opportunities because he believed that everything he needed would be provided to him if he dedicated himself to creating stimulating emotions for others.
This painting belongs to the early period Gauguin spent in Tahiti, where he wanted “to live there in ecstasy, calm and art.” The painter moved in 1891 to the South Pacific from Paris, escaping the “European fight after money” and to be “finally free”. This double portrait, Femmes de Tahiti, represents two young women on the beach, one dressed with a traditional pareo and the other one, in contrast, with a more rigorous missionary dress. The artwork is exhibited at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
Although Gauguin’s experience in Polynesia was influential on his art, it was not the only factor. Other artists also used color and depicted natural forms in their work before Gauguin did. In addition, although his experience in Polynesia influenced his lifestyle and decision making, it did not influence every decision he made later in life. Therefore, it is important not to overstate Gauguin’s role in developing impressionist painting because there were other artists who did the same thing beforehand or afterward. Nonetheless, even though Gauguin did not create impressionist painting alone, he played an important role in its development by inspiring others and refining their artistic styles beyond the conventions of his time.
This self-portrait was painted by Gauguin in 1896, when he had been already been living for some time in Tahiti and had taken more decisive steps in a very unique artistic direction, inspired by local traditions in French Polynesia and quite diverging from his impressionistic beginnings in France, by now identified as post-impressionism. In later years the painter relocated to a even more remote location, in the Marquesas Islands, where he died in 1903.
Below is the trailer of a recent French movie about the later years of the artist’s life in Polynesia.
Essential online bibliographic references:
- Entry on Paul Gauguin on Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Site dedicated to the life and artworks of Paul Gauguin
- Paul Gauguin’s page at The Art History
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