Paul Gauguin, Artist: Biography, Facts & Paintings

Instructor: Amber Chiozza

Amber has taught Art History, Humanities, and Art Appreciation, and has a master's degree in Book Arts and Printmaking.

Paul Gauguin was a French artist associated with Post-Impressionism and known for his unique use of color, symbolism, and subject matter. In this lesson, you'll learn about what makes him unique, as well as his lasting legacy in the art world.

An Overview of Paul Gauguin

If you walk into a gallery or art museum today, you'll be surrounded by works that range from traditional interpretations of figures to wildly colorful abstract paintings. How did the art world shift so dramatically? To answer this question, you have to look at several artists over many different periods, and one of these artists is Paul Gauguin. Gauguin was one of the first artists of his time to use pure, bright color in his works. He did this to show the world around him and also express his emotions. In this lesson, we'll look at Gauguin's life and discuss the common themes in his works.

Early Life and Painting

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris, France in 1848. Though born in Paris, Gauguin and his family travelled to Peru and Lima due to his mother's influential political family there. The artwork there was an early influence on Gauguin; he enjoyed the native pottery and clothing.

When he was seven, his family returned to northern France, to the town of Orleans, and he had to learn French for the first time. His childhood was fairly typical for a French boy, going to school until enlisting in the merchant marines and, later, the French Navy. While in the Navy, his mother passed away, and upon his return to France, he was taken under the care of Gustave Arosa. Arosa would assist Gauguin in both finding a successful job as a stockbroker and introducing him to art. During this period of financial success, Gauguin married a Danish woman by the name of Mette-Sophie Gad, with whom he had five children over the next ten years. They moved to Copenhagen in 1884.

He began to collect a contemporary style of artwork around this time, especially work in the Impressionistic style, which focused the use of light and color in paintings that often depicted landscapes and every-day life. These works inspired him to paint on his own. While he did not seek out formal training, he soon began to show his work with Impressionist painters, including Camille Pissaro and Paul Cezanne. In 1882, the stock market crashed, and Gauguin lost his prestigious position. He pursued art full-time. He moved to Paris, leaving his family as so he could work on his art.

Emergence of a New Style

Paul Gauguin. Four Breton Women. 1886.
Paul Gauguin. Four Breton Women. 1886.

Gauguin began to depart from the ideals of light and every-day life sought by the Impressionists. Instead, he focused on using color to depict mystery; he implied there was more going on in the painting than what could be seen. In Four Breton Women, look at the large patches of brown and green behind the women. These breaks with the style of realism may seem at ease with today's standards of art, but at the time, many people found his decisions questionable. This style of flat pattern and color would get pushed even further after his trip to the Caribbean island Martinique, where he saw the colors and clothing of the native people. The bright colors influenced him to take a more bold approach to his art.

After his trip to the Caribbean, Gauguin would return to France, where he began communicating with Vincent Van Gogh, another artist pushing away from the traditions of Impressionism for more expression and color. The two would spend weeks together, heavily influencing each other's work and producing some key works for both of their careers.

Paul Gauguin. Vision After the Sermon. 1888
Paul Gauguin. Vision After the Sermon. 1888

Vision After the Sermon is one of these works. Compare it to Four Breton Women. What is different? For one, the colors are much richer and exaggerated. Not only that, but Gauguin also uses a large, flat red to define the space in which Jacob and the Angel are fighting. Looking at this, you wonder what the red space is and what is behind it; he's implying a greater story than the one simply presented in the painting. He is painting a religious story, which was considered a traditional subject, but he's using his own personal technique. He is also pulling from influences of Peruvian pottery and Japanese woodblock prints that he admired. Clearly, Gauguin did not stay within the rules of any one specific style of art!

Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching. 1892.
Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching. 1892.

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