In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paul Gauguin

  • Introduction
  • Gender, Race, and Postcolonialism

Art History Paul Gauguin
Allison Perelman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0175


Paul Gauguin (b. 1848–d. 1903) is perhaps equally well known for his life story as for his art. Born in Paris, he spent most of the first six years of his life in Peru until his family returned to their native France. As a young man, Gauguin sailed internationally in the Merchant Marines before becoming an assistant to a stockbroker in Paris. In the 1870s, his interest in art collecting led to meeting several prominent avant-garde artists, including the Impressionist Camille Pissarro. Soon Gauguin was not only buying art, but he was also practicing painting and sculpture in his spare time. By the early 1880s, he was pursuing a fulltime career as an artist. Gauguin worked in a broad range of media, such as painting, wood carving, ceramics, drawing, and printmaking, in addition to his written manuscripts. He was one of the most radically experimental artists of his time, and his oeuvre reflects the breadth of his material interests and international inspirations. Known for his extensive travels, he lived and worked not only in Paris but also the French regions of Brittany and Provence as well as Denmark, Martinique, Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. In 1891, Gauguin left Paris for Tahiti, in search of new subject matter for his art and to cement his reputation as a primitivist. After a brief return to France, where his Polynesian-inspired paintings, sculptures, and prints shocked and confounded audiences, he traveled back to Tahiti. He remained there for six years before moving to the Marquesas Islands, where he lived the last two years of his life. Gauguin is best known for his paintings of Polynesian subjects, particularly female figures. Found in museums around the world, his canvases are often characterized by bright colors, flat application of paint, and a style that emphasized subjective feeling and fantastical imagery over naturalistic representation. Although he began his career with the Impressionists, he is also associated with styles and art movements of Cloisonnism, Symbolism, and Primitivism. Posthumously, he has also been categorized as a Post-Impressionist along with Vincent van Gogh, with whom he had a productive yet combative collaboration. The conflation between Gauguin’s life and art can be traced back to the artist himself. He was a savvy promoter of his own work and created a self-mythology in which he embraced a dual persona as both cerebral avant-gardist and uncivilized savage. During his lifetime, he recognized the value of controversy and defiant aesthetic and political stances in his efforts to promote his career. Gauguin remains a controversial figure, however, largely due to his sexual relationships with girls and young women; his participation in French imperialist and colonialist endeavors overseas; and his utilization of motifs, myths, and figures from other, often marginalized, cultures. With the rise of gender, race, and postcolonial theory in recent decades, scholars around the world continue to grapple with the artist, his work, and his lasting cultural impact.

Life and Career Overviews

The course of Gauguin’s life has been the subject of both scholarly and popular interest for over a century. Consequently, there are numerous biographies and catalogues from retrospective exhibitions, each with their own interpretation of the relationship between his oeuvre and his personal history. Less common are publications written to serve as well-researched introductions to the artist for a general audience, but several worthwhile examples are listed here under Overviews and Introductions to Gauguin. Maugham 1919 is a notable outlier to these categories as a fictional roman à clef; while it does not give an accurate account of the artist’s life, it does offer insight into how the legend of Gauguin informed the public imagination of the early twentieth century.

  • Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

    Taking thinly veiled inspiration from Gauguin’s life, Maugham’s novel tells the story of an artist who abandons his family to pursue a painting career in Paris and then Tahiti. This text should not be confused for or used as a substitute for a biography of the artist; however, as an artifact of the culture of its time, it provides key insight into the perceptions of the early mythology of Gauguin.

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