Post-Impressionist Artists: Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)


Paul Gauguin and other artists of the late 19th century wanted to invent a new art to replace the analytic form of Impressionism. Gauguin, a former Sunday painter and stock broker, had been a student of Camille Pissarro.  Although he showed in some of the later Impressionists exhibitions, the pupil broke from his master.  The Post-Impressionists were obsessed with the concept of “synthesis” and attempted to paint directly from nature.  However, the goal was to interpret nature and to use suggestive colors and forms to synthesize or bring together the mind and the eye.  The Impressionists were criticized for being too passive and too tied to the dictates of nature. Synthesist concepts allowed for the subjective deformation and the freedom of interpretation to express natural beauty. The idea that nature was or could be more than simply a pretty scene was taken up by the artists; nature could be fully expressed only by bringing together all of the senses.  First the artist had to relocate “nature” outside of Paris, sites that were not only unspoiled but which could also arouse the imagination and the emotions.  A new group of young artists clustered around Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven in 1886.  In a direct rejection of Impressionist urban or suburban subject matter, Gauguin went to this small village in Brittany seeking to connect with “primitive people” or the peasants.  In Brittany, modernity had been held at bay and the agricultural communities practiced a simple life and a mystical form of Catholicism.

Pont-Aven (1886, 1888, 1889, 1890)

Now the leader of his own school, complete with followers, Gauguin stated, “The painter ought not to rest until he has given birth to the child of his imagination…begotten by the union of his mind with reality.”  Gauguin’s statement constitutes a complete abandonment of Impressionism and the lessons of his teacher, Camille Pissarro. The artists of Pont-Aven moved towards strong design, inspired by Japanese prints, and rejected local for expressive color. Likewise, the use of line was freed from its traditional task of description and was given over to the demands of design.  Line was free and began to take on a life of its own.  To heighten the abstract and graphic qualities of their paintings, the artists used dark outlines around the forms.  Gauguin’s young associate, Emile Bernard, called the style they developed “Cloisonnisme,” a term borrowed from jewelry making, which conveys the idea of the intent of the artists quite well. Post-Impressionist realism was blended with a flat decorative effect and stylized forms from other cultures, also considered “primitive,” Egyptian, Medieval, Persian, and images d’Epinal.

The works done by the artists of the Pont-Aven School were done in the spirit of what would later be termed “Primitivism,” as they nostalgically recorded the comings and goings of the now-picturesque Breton peasants, especially the women. Thanks to an efficient railway service, many artists visited this region in northern France to record a threatened society but they did so under the auspices of Realism and the Academy. “Peasant paintings” were very poplar with the Parisians, eager for reassurance that “traditional France’ had not changed, despite the Industrial Revolution.  In addition to the already popular subject matter, Pont-Aven had another advantage—it was cheap to live there.  Gauguin, Bernard and Paul Sérusier produced highly stylized observations of the life in Brittany that crossed Japanese prints with late Impressionism. The most famous of their works was Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888), which he attempted to donate to the local church.   The donation was refused, perhaps due to the radical design and strident red color.  This painting combined or synthesized not only Gauguin’s imaginative interpretation of actual events and places but also the naïve an innocent visions of the “primitive” women of Brittany, who saw God everywhere.

Arles ( Winter, 1888)

Gauguin retreated even deeper into Brittany, to the village of Le Pouldu, in search of novel subjects and unspoiled inhabitants of an untouched landscape.  But their experiments of the Pont-Aven artists were financially unsuccessful and the group broke up and the artists went their separate ways.  Gauguin faced debts in the towns where bills were left unpaid and was so financially strapped he had to accept an offer from Théo van Gogh, an art dealer known to by sympathetic to avant-garde artists.  Van Gogh would cover his debts if Gauguin joined his brother Vincent in another small town, the ancient Roman city of Arles in southern France.  Gauguin, who had no great liking for the eccentric Dutch artist, agreed reluctantly.  The result was a now-famous and ill-fated partnership in painting between two extraordinary artists.  The pairing might have been more successful if the weather had been better, but they were isolated in the Yellow House during the months of October and November and December.  High strung, temperamental, and self-involved, the artists quarreled over what to paint and how to paint, but during of the winter months, Gauguin found shelter and produced more paintings for Théo to sell.

Although many paintings were completed, this period is not Gauguin’s strongest.  Although Self-Portrait Dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Misérables) and Portrait of van Gogh with Sunflowers are fine works, van Gogh seemed to have a stronger reaction to the older artist.  The difficult and mentally unstable painter created The Night Café, one of the great paintings of his career. Gauguin softened the hard lines of cloisonnism in Arles and even his colors were more muted. The forced arrangement came to an abrupt halt when Vincent had a mental breakdown, threatened Gauguin, and cut off his own ear.  Briefly suspected of committing a crime against his friend, Gauguin called in Théo to take care of his brother and left Arles for good.  Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven, where his painting immediately became stronger. Yellow Christ (1889) was a return to the dark outlines and the stacked, gridded background of deep colors.  He also produced his homage to Courbet, Bonjour M. Gauguin in the same year.  Although the artist showed in the exhibition at the Café Volpini, the Exposition de peintures du groupe impressioniste et synthéiste, he was discouraged with his future in Paris.

The South Pacific (1891 – 1893, 1895 – 1903)

Gauguin was, to all intents and purposes, an artist in search of an audience.  Vision After the Sermon was shown at the Sixème exposition des XX, but his career had not advanced in terms of sales.  His dealer, Ambroise Vollard could do little to help him, for the peasant pictures he did in Brittany were so radical, they were beyond the public comprehension.  However, Gauguin was still hopeful that new subject matter and novel content would help his works to sell.  In 1891, he left Paris for more distant regions–the French possessions in the South Pacific, discovered in 1767. Gauguin took with him more than his luggage; he took his preconceptions and his fantasies.  Like Brittany, the South Pacific was a place devoid of civilization, where innocent natives were in close spiritual contact with nature.  Tahiti, he assumed, was one of the remaining outposts of Rousseau’s Noble Savage.  Here was a Paradise Spoiled, but Gauguin painted the “natives” or what was left of their indigenous culture.  The missionaries had forced the people to wear clothes and the native garb was actually made in Europe.  However Westernized the Tahitians were, Gauguin’s art was restored by this new inspiration.

Later Gauguin wrote a somewhat romanticized account of his stay in the tropic, Noa Noa, meaning “fragrant.” His project has been critiqued for being racist, sexist, colonialist and imperialist, which, indeed, it was. It is doubtful if his reaction to the hot climate and brown-skinned girls could have been otherwise. Gauguin’s project was not a Naturalist one.  His brief was to filter Tahitian life through the gaze of European imagination. It was in Tahiti that Gauguin’s concept that art should be decorative became manifest.  He attempted to take the indigenous art, “decorative” by Western standards, and combine it with the cloisonnism of his Pont-Aven days.  The “natives” became fixed and outlined signifiers of the exotic, and every element has been translated into Western terminology and filtered through colonial iconography. Based upon the tradition of the Academic nude, Spirit of the Dead Watching emphasized charms of his teenaged mistress, lying on her stomach.  She is the flipped over opposite of Manet’s Olympia, denied the autonomy and the confrontation of the courtesan of the Salon of 1865.  The decorative was indicated by the strongly colored local patterns seen on the blue and yellow cloth of the bed coverings.  Not only is the painting based upon Manet’s precedent, there is another precursor, Gauguin’s own work: Loss of Virginity of 1891.  Painted in Paris with a professional model, the work is “primitivized” by the Le Pouldu landscape and the presence of a fox, lying next to the prone nude woman.

Despite the efforts of the artist to put Tahiti in contexts the Parisians would understand, his audience found the works strange and off putting.  Upon his return to Paris in 1893 (with four francs in his pocket), Gauguin had a large showing with Paul Durand-Ruel and gave a private exhibition in his own rooms, painted chrome yellow and green for the occasion. Framed in white, avant-garde style, the paintings of this period were unsuccessful, attracting the attention only of the most advanced artists and dealers. With their air of sexual indolence and the omnipresent gaze of the infatuated white male directed toward young women of color, these late works raise issues sexual propriety and continue the questions of the power relations between the genders raised by the art of Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet and extend them into questions of social power and color. Gauguin’s Tahitian fantasies were constructed along now-familiar polarities of primitive vs. civilized, heathen vs. Christian, natural vs. artificial, and irrational vs. rational.

Discouraged by his lack of financial success, Gauguin left for the South Pacific in 1895 and never returned.  Although he had admirers, he did not have buyers in Paris.  He never gave up the dream of painting great decorative sequences of pictures of the exotic.  Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897), one of his last great works, is just such a scheme.  A trilogy of purely Western existential questions or the desperate queries of a wandering artist, the one-piece “triptych” is a journey told in three parts.  Gauguin casts the Polynesian women in the roles of seekers who have, perhaps, no need of asking such pointless questions. The women, guided by their god, go on a life journey from youth to old age.  In contrast to the earlier Tahitian compositions where the painting are soft in color, the scenes are dark and somber.  Only the golden bodies of the females and their white loincloths provide color in the largely blue painting. No answers came to the artist. The health of the painter became worse and worse and he died in the furthest reaches of the Pacific, the Marquesas Islands, in 1903.


Gauguin’s “primitivism” was rejection, not just of Western civilization but also of its assumptions that art somehow could or should imitate nature.  His accumulation of, assimilation of, assumption of varying styles allowed him to respond to nature in his own uniquely personal way, by showing another way to represent reality, his feelings, his ideas, always using that reality as his foundation. Like the artists who would come after him, Gauguin freely and shamelessly looted non-Western art, from Japanese to Javanese, and used it for his own purposes.  Although not as celebrated as his paintings, the sculptures he did in a “primitive” fashion are perhaps more directly responsive to the “primitive” art he saw.  None of the artists, museum curators, art dealers, or anthropologists saw non-Western art as “art.”  The art objects were understood only as artifacts of the “primitive” and were displayed devoid of context and stripped of meaning.  Like the terrains of the peoples of color, these objects were ripe for the taking and were used to revitalize the exhausted tradition of European art.  It would not be until the 1980s that the question of the relationship between so-called “primitive art” and what the critic, Robert Hughes, called the “cultural imperialism” would be fully considered.

Desperate for new subject matter, Gauguin preferred working from memory, reenacting what he had seen. The Day of the God (Mahana No Atua) was painted in Paris, but the setting was in Tahiti, where gods and men and women encountered each other.  The so-called “superstition” was a “survival,” a fragment of the original culture struggling to exist within the relentless Westernization.  A thoroughly Western male, Gauguin relished the “primitive” and sought it out.  He never questioned his innate superiority and overlaid the culture of the Other with his own and imprinted his vision with his imagination. Therefore, his working method was a combination of detachment from nature–in the studio–and an impassioned response to what his senses had taken in. Gauguin revealed a new vision of nature, a world redesigned into linear patterns and rich vibrant colors. The visualized results of his inner life tended to be decorative, patterned and stylized and very personal, leaving his art hovering somewhere between Realism and Symbolism. It is the dreamy symbolism of his art that separates Gauguin from the scientific realism of the Impressionists.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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