Paul Gauguin
(French, 1848-1903)


The story of Gauguin’s life is a tale of wandering and seeking something that could never be found. The artist was born in Paris in 1848. His parents were unconventional – his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of a prominent socialist leader. Gauguin was descended from Peruvian nobility on his mother’s side.

When Gauguin was just 18-months-old, his parents and sister moved to Peru. His father did not survive the journey, so he lived with his mother and sister at his uncle’s home in Lima. He recalled that some of his earliest memories were of his mother peering out through her traditional Peruvian veil. These images undoubtedly had an effect on his later artistic development.

After four years in Peru, the Gauguins moved back to France to live with the artist’s grandmother. He had to learn French and attend Catholic boarding school, which he hated very much. As soon as he turned 17, he signed up for his three-year term of mandatory military service. He devoted an additional four years to the French navy.

Introduction to French Society & Family Life

Gauguin’s mother died while he was serving in the military. He eventually returned home, where her wealthy boyfriend arranged for the young man to have a position in the stock market and introduced him to Camille Pissaro. Gauguin began to paint in his spare time and would spend Sunday afternoons in Pissaro’s garden.

Gauguin married Mette-Sophie Gad, a Danish woman, in 1873. The couple had five children, but only three of them would survive into adulthood. After the stock market crash of 1882, the family moved to Copenhagen. Gauguin tried his hand at sales, but failed miserably.

He had a falling out with his wife and returned to France in 1885 to pursue a full-time career as an artist. He became close to Cezanne and purchased several of his paintings to study. He traveled to Panama and Martinique with Charles Leval.

He also befriended Vincent Van Gogh and spent several months painting with him in Arles. However, the mental instability of both artists strained their relationship and it concluded with Van Gogh’s nervous breakdown.

The Search for Primitivism

Gauguin devoted his remaining years to a quest for a simpler way of living. He wanted to visit “untouched” civilizations, so he moved to Tahiti. However, he was disappointed to learn upon his arrival that the Catholic missionaries had already eradicated some of the more primitive practices of the local population.

Nevertheless, Gauguin remained in French Polynesia for the rest of his life. He painted several masterpieces during this time, wrote a book and had numerous mistresses. It is rumored that he suffered from syphilis and that this may have played a role in his cause of death – overdose of morphine – in 1903.

Though he enjoyed some modest degree of success during his lifetime, the fever for Gauguin’s work did not reach a peak until long after his death.