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Paul Gauguin was born in Paris as the son of a journalist and a Peruvian mother. When the family had to leave France for political reasons, Paul's father died during the sea voyage to Peru. And Paul was nineteen years old, when he lost his mother.
Gauguin's early career was out of the normal. He first worked as a sailor for the French merchant fleet for six years. Then he turned to banking and became a successful stock-broker at the Paris stock-exchange.
In 1871 Paul Gauguin started to paint as a hobby. He had seen an exhibition of Impressionist paintings and was deeply impressed. The passion for painting should dominate his life for the good and for the bad. But he was still firmly rooted in his bourgois life and he had a solid job as a banker. In 1873 he married Mette Gad, a Danish from Copenhagn. He had five children with her.
With his good income as a stockbroker, Gauguin could afford to buy several paintings by Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir and other Impressionists. His own artistic activities were restricted to painting over the weekends. Later he attended evening classes at the Colarossi Academy. He was assisted and influenced by Pissarro and later by Paul Cezanne. In 1876 a landscape painting by Gauguin was accepted for the Salon d'Automne. He was now 28 years old.
In 1883/1984 Gauguin's life changed dramatically. At the age of 35 Paul Gauguin gave up his bourgois life as a stockbroker and moved from Paris to Rouen. Financial difficulties of the company which employed him, may have made this step easier. His wife Mette, upset with her husbands plans, went back to her parents in Denmark. In 1884 he visited her and the children in Copenhagn but soon returned to France.
In 1885 Paul Gauguin separated from his wife and left his 5 children. The last ties with a bourgois life were cut off and from now on he led an unsteady life as a painter and printmaker.
Gauguin first went to Pont-Aven in Brittany and joined a group of avant-garde artists for 6 months. Later he returned to Paris.
In 1887 he went to Panama to work for the Panama canal project. But he was dismissed after only two weeks. His next destination was Martinique. By that time Gauguin had developed an antipathy against the Western civilization. But he returned to Paris and Pont-Aven. There he saw better chances of making a living as an artist.
1988 was the year when Gauguin's painting style made a distinctive turn into what should become his trademark style - the use of bold, unrealistic colors, large flat areas and the use of mystic subjects. The painting The Yellow Christ is typical for this period. The influence of two-dimensional Japanese art is clearly visible. Everything Japanese was very en vogue towards the end of the nineteenth century and had an important influence on impressionist and post-impressionist painters.
Gauguin went to Arles in Southern France where he stayed and worked with van Gogh for two months. The two men first understood each other well. But soon conflicts and quarrels became frequent. It culminated in van Gogh's cutting of his own ear and his subsequent mental and nervous breakdown. After the incident Gauguin abruptly returned to Paris.
In 1891 Paul Gauguin could sell about thirty paintings. One of his clients was Edgar Degas. The money from these sales enabled him to sail to Tahiti in the South Sea. He lived in Papeete for two years in rather primitive conditions. During this period the artist created some of his finest paintings. He stayed in Tahiti for two years. In 1893 he returned to France.
But in April 1894 he sailed back to the South Sea. He spent his last five years in great poverty and in bad health as the result of a venereal disease. His financial situation was depressing. In 1897 he tried to commit suicide. But he continued to paint until his death in 1903 on the Marquesas Islands.
Three years after his death, in a retrospective show of his works at the Salon d'Automne the public finally recognized the outstanding importance of Paul Gauguin for the development of modern art. For him, it came too late.
With his predilection for "primitive" and exotic art, Gauguin discovered woodcuts as an interesting printmaking technique. After his return from his first voyage to the South Sea, he planned to publish a book, Noa Noa, about his experience in Tahiti. The book was never published, but Gauguin made a set of ten color woodcuts meant as illustrations.
After the Noa Noa set, Gauguin created his largest woodblock Manao tupapau. Back in the South Sea in Tahiti and from 1901 on the Marquesas Islands, Gauguin produced some thirty more woodcuts - mostly monotypes.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(November 2001, updated April 2009)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, "Post-Impressionist Prints", ISBN 0-87633-119-3.
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