Progression of Art
Still-Life with Fruit and Lemons
Composed while Gauguin was still working full time as a stockbroker and painting was little more than a hobby to him, this still-life reveals the artist's natural technical skill with brush and canvas. The subject matter is also standard Impressionist fare, and is a clear indicator of Gauguin's early influencers, which included Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. Gauguin's rendering of the tablecloth in particular also shows the strong influence of Cézanne, whose own still lifes used similar effects of outline and shading.
Oil on canvas - Museum Langmatt, Baden, Switzerland
Four Breton Girls
Unlike others who painted rural French subjects in the 1880s, Gauguin chose to depict four Breton girls in a field in no simple documentary, or realist manner. Much of the landscape visible in this work suggests Gauguin's roots in Impressionism and its attendant ideal to capture the visual dalliance of a landscape on the artist's eye, or retina. But Gauguin pushes that recent heritage to new purposes, placing the girls in dance-like formation; emphasizing the massive flow of their dresses; creating profiles and silhouettes of portraits and figures suggesting paper dolls...these and other artistic manipulations of the subject begin to serve a symbolic purpose, suggesting that deeper meanings are hidden behind the superficial appearances of reality. In this "synthetic" work, Gauguin thus fuses elements of visual accuracy with distortions of design and composition that speak of the girls' mystical union with nature; indeed, they collectively assume the formation of a grove of botanical specimens, a lively school of fishes, or a flock of birds in an unseen, overhead canopy. Faces, figures, clothing, and landscape each assume equal importance in this democratic arena, in which girls interlock their limbs as effortlessly as if they had originally grown that way.
Oil on canvas - Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany
Self-Portrait 'Les Miserables'
Just prior to Gauguin's departure for Arles in late 1888, Gauguin and the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh sent each other examples of their respective work, including a number of self-portraits. This composition by Gauguin was included among the exchanges. In this work, Gauguin includes a likeness, in full profile, of the fictional character Jean Valjean, the morally upright but perpetually socially persecuted hero of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862). Sporting a solemn look, tousled hair, and tired eyes, Gauguin clearly intends to draw a parallel between himself and Valjean, whose petty crime of the past (he once stole a loaf of bread) forever brands him a criminal, no matter of his subsequent virtues. Van Gogh later recalled being deeply impressed by Gauguin's uncommonly bold applications of color.
Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Vision After the Sermon (Jacob's Fight with the Angel)
Vision after the Sermon represents a significant departure from the subject matter of Impressionism, namely the city or rural landscape, which was still quite prevalent in Europe and the United States during the last two decades of the 19th century. Instead of choosing to paint pastoral landscape or urban entertainments, Gauguin depicted a rural Biblical scene of praying women envisioning Jacob wrestling with an angel. The decision to paint a religious subject was reminiscent of the Renaissance tradition, yet Gauguin rendered his subject in a decidedly modern style derived in part from Japanese prints, his own experiments in ceramics, stained-glass window methods, and other popular and "high art" traditions, finally emphasizing bold outlines and flat areas of color.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
The Yellow Christ
The Yellow Christ is a strong example of both Cloisonnism (a style characterized by dark contours and bright areas of color separated by bold outlines) and Symbolism (in which subject matter is idealized or romanticized in some fashion). The painting's predominant imagery, the crucified Christ, is evident, but Gauguin places the scene in the north of France during the peak season of Autumn foliage, indeed as women in 19th-century garb gather at the foot of the cross. It remains for the viewer to decide whether the vision is conjured in the minds of the pious or physically manifest in the contemporary landscape.
Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch)
One of Gauguin's most famous works, Manao Tupapau is an excellent example of how Gauguin relished combining the ordinary with suggestions of the extraordinary in a single canvas, thus leaving all final interpretation open to debate. As he relates in a period diary, the actual scenario was inspired by his return home late one night and finding his wife, depicted here naked in the tropical heat, suddenly startled by his strike of a match in the all-enveloping darkness. Gauguin captures the luminous, unreal look of the sub-equatorial interior, here decorated by floral textiles, or batiks, along with other earthy materials, all suddenly illuminated by a momentary chemical combustion. At the same time, Gauguin introduces a ghostly depiction of a "watching" female spirit, seemingly harmless, at the foot of the bed, a direct reference to a local folklore describing how such spirits roam the night and forever share the world of the living.
This same painting also illustrates well how Gauguin remained forever a child of the 19th century, while nonetheless functioning as a bellwether, or beacon, to a younger generation. Most of his work remained rooted in the natural world around him, a legacy of his roots in Impressionism. But in some instances, Guaguin even speaks to the work of a former master, such as in this work, which for many eyes continues a precedent of the everyday, un-idealized nude set by Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863). Yet Gauguin's work finally suggests, like that of his even more Symbolist contemporaries Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau (both were more closely aligned than Gauguin with French Symbolist poetry of the day), that underneath the world of "rock solid" appearances lies a parallel realm of eternal mystery, spiritual import, and poetic suggestion.
Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Gauguin's late-century magnum opus, painted in Tahiti, communicates a story in three stages from right to left, each stage corresponding to a question in the painting's title, which Gauguin inscribed, notably without question marks, in the upper left corner. The first stage of life, on the far right, is that of childhood; the second stage of young adulthood; the last stage of life's impending closure, here found at the far left, where, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts." Unlike earlier attempts by Gauguin, this grand composition, derived partly from a long tradition of "stage-of-life" painting in Western societies, is not explicitly religious but, rather, more personal and obscurely spiritual. This is much in keeping with Gauguin's late-in-life retreat from European society into a culture native to what was then French Polynesia.
In employing such an evocative, yet oblique title, Gauguin alludes to his own increasingly philosophical and mystical tendencies of his mature years. He had always been linked by his contemporaries with a Symbolist movement in painting that was closely allied to French poetry of the 1880s and 90s, but rarely did he, himself, attach overtly philosophical or literary references to his canvases. In Where Do We Come From?, then, Gauguin is apparently looking back on a life spent largely apart from his own social and geographic wellsprings, and perhaps seeking mental, spiritual, and physical grounding in a world he consciously elected to serve as his "alternative reality."
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Two Tahitian Women
As Gauguin's time in Tahiti was coming to a close, he departed from his usual Symbolist style in order to paint portraits of Tahitian women, whose beauty, form, and lack of shame at their partial nudity (decidedly unlike many 19th-century European women's regard of the naked body) at once fascinated, attracted, and inspired him. This double portrait is typical of Gauguin's later work, much of which reflected the artist's deep love of nature. As learned from the benefit of hindsight, it should perhaps be noted that Gauguin's painterly vision of the islands was, in large measure, a romantic one, the place and its people in turn exoticized, sexualized, and otherwise exaggerated by a painter in search of a viable alternative to what he perceived to be Western society's own cultural shortcomings.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY