Paul Gauguin – paintings and techniques are hailed by art historians as extremely influential to 20th century modern art. Together with Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin’s paintings pioneers post-Impressionism, a movement that emerges in the 1890s.

What is Post-impressionism?

Post-Impressionism was influcenced and came directly after the impressionism art movement. The post-impressionists still used vibrant colors, thick paint, distinct brushstrokes of the impressionists but stressed the use of geometric forms and unnatural colors. The post-impressionist painters also used their art to delve into the artist’s mind and soul.

Symbolic and highly personal meanings were particularly important to the Post-Impressionists such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. And indeed their paintings paved the way for the development of modern art, which is based largely on the emotions of the artist.

Paul Gauguin Paintings Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Rather than depicting the observed world, they instead look to their memories and emotions when painting.

I shut my eyes in order to see

Quote Paul Gauguin


While the impressionists painted outdoors (plein air painting), post-impressionists mainly painted inside a studio.

Don’t paint too much directly from nature. Art is an abstraction – Quote Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin Bio

Self Portrait – Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903) was a painter, printmaker, and sculptor associated with the Post-Impressionist and Symbolist movements. He studied under Camille Pissarro but was influenced by other avant-garde artists of the time.

Gauguin was a stockbroker before he was a painter!

Gauguin lost his job as a stockbroker in the financial crash of 1882. By 1885 he was seeking a new means of making a living. Plagued by bouts of depression, Gauguin finally decides to pursue his painting as a career path. He returns to Paris determined to make it as an artist, despite the fact that he entirely lacked formal artistic training.

Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams - Paul Gauguin paintings
Paul Gauguin Paintings – Life in Tahiti Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Impressionists Discover Gauguin

Gauguin witnesses his first Impressionist art exhibit in 1874, and the exhibit has a huge influence on him. He purchases artwork from Manet, Renoir, and other artists, but he finds himself drawn to the style of Pissarro which he tries to emulate. Gauguin is a self-taught artist who forms a close relationship with Pissarro. Seeing the talent of Gauguin, Pissarro & Edgar Degas arrange his first public showing in 1879.

Gauguin joins forces with Van Gogh

Paul Gauguin abandons his wife & his four children and moves to Arles in the South of France to join his friend Vincent van Gogh for two months. During this period the two of them paint together in the famous “Yellow House”. However Gauguin quickly leaves because of Van Gogh’s unstable emotional state.

During these nine weeks, both artists paint an impressive number of canvases. One of which is Paul Gauguin’s painting, the very famous Night Café at Arles (Mme Ginoux).

Paul Gauguin paintings
Night Cafe in Arles – Paul Gauguin Painting

Neither of them have a particularly promising reputation in the art world at this stage in their careers. Their incredible artistic exchange comes to a dramatic conclusion after nine weeks. Van Gogh’s depressive and occasionally violent attacks and emotional turbulence causes the break of their artistic alliance.

However the two would forever admire each other’s work.

By 1891, disillusioned with France and European values, Gauguin ventures to Tahiti and the neighboring islands. He lives amongst them and paints the indigenous women. These travels inspire a bold and new styles in his artwork. Gauguin often uses different hues to convey emotion, rather than to represent how it really was.

Paul Gauguin paintings - Joyfulnes
Paul Gauguin Paintings – Tahiti women [Public Domain]

Paul Gauguin – Paintings in Tahiti

He portrays the natives as living only to sing and make love. Creating this myth was how he made money from his friends and raised the public’s interest in his adventure. But, of course, he knew the truth, which was that Tahiti was an ordinary island with an international and westernised community.

Tahiti was more sexually liberated than turn-of-the-century Paris and there is no doubt that Gauguin revelled in the opportunities it offered.

Paul Gauguin paintings
When Will You Marry? Paul Gauguin paintings [Public Domain}

After two years, Gauguin returns to France, expecting a hero’s welcome. But what should have been a triumphant return turns into a huge disappointment as his paintings remain unsold.

Completely broke and less than a year later, he returns to the Polynesian islands.

He remains in French Polynesia for six years, eventually moving from Tahiti to Marquesas. During this time, he marries twice (both wives were 14 years old) and completes his most famous painting, Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?

Paul Gauguin paintings Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? [Public Domain]

Paul Gauguin dies six years later a bitter and lonely man on May 8, 1903 in Atuona, French Polynesia at the age of 54. He dies from an illness associated with syphillis.

Artistic Legacy – both shunned and admired

To some, Paul Gauguin is one of the post-impressionism giants  who broke free from Europe’s bourgeois values and searches for creative liberation in the exotic Polynesian Islands.

To others, he is considered a fraud, milking the myth of exotic Polynesia to satisfy his exotic fantasies while boosting the market for his art back home. He is one of the art-historians’ great dilemmas.

One century after he painted his controversial compositions of nude, brown-skinned Tahitian girls—including several of his young teen lovers—the art world continues to grapple with his legacy.

Overlooking the ugly reality of Paul Gauguin’s paintings, museums have tended to turn the spotlight on his artistic achievements, which cannot be disputed.

His post-impressionism style of painting that delves into the artist’s mind and soul has paved the way for future artists. Also his use of a vibrant palette of color and radically decorative, flattened surfaces have greatly influenced the next generation of modern artists, including Picasso and Matisse.

Museum’s displaying is works

Today, you can view Paul Gauguin’s paintings in the post prestigious art museums around the world. In Paris, there is a lovely collection in the Musée d’Orsay, The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Tate Gallery in London, among others.

Paul Gauguin paintings
Paul Gauguin Paintings [Public Domain]

For further reading about the complex Paul Gauguin, click here .

Do you love historical fiction?

If you are a lover of and familiar with Paul Gauguin’s paintings, then I highly recommend to you the historical fiction novel  “The Moon and Sixpence” by  Somereset Maugham.

The author loosely portrays Paul Gauguin as Charles Strickland. Like Gauguin,
Strickland is an egoistic pursuer of a painting career.

The novel is a character study of how far a true artist may go for the sake of his art. Not only how much he will endure, but how much pain he may inflict upon others. The book also explores the theme of the nature of obsession for the extreme creative urge (similar to the obsession behind Paul Gauguin’s Paintings).

I invite you to read my full review of this compelling and thought provoking book.

If you are interested in order a copy, press here.