The Global Life of Paul Gauguin

The life work of this post-impressionist artist was influential and controversial, but tells a lot about bourgeois norms of the 19th century

By Google Arts & Culture

56, rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, Paris, France

Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in June 1848, amidst the bloody 'June Days' of the 1848 Revolution. His parents were liberals, and his grandmother had organised early socialist movements, and was under active surveillance by the police - Gauguin would later idolise her.

Lima, Peru

Gauguin's family escaped to Lima, Peru where his mother's extended family held high status. Until the age of 6, Gauguin enjoyed a privileged upbringing, living in mansions surrounded by servants. However the Peruvian civil conflicts of 1854 soon forced the family back to Paris.

Rio de Jainerio, Brazil

After attending several prestigious schools, at 17 Gauguin enlisted in the merchant navy, and joined the crew of the Luzitano, and spent 13 months sailing between Le Havre and Rio de Jainerio, before joining the Jérôme-Napoléon, sailing the world until 1871.

15, rue La Bruyère

While at sea, Gauguin's mother had died, and her house had been destroyed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. He took up an apartment at 15 Rue La Bruyère and found a job as a stockbroker. When the stock market collapsed in 1882, he decided to become a painter.

Gauguin had never trained as an artist, but in the 9th Arrondissement he was surrounded by fashionable painters and visited galleries frequently. He became friends with Camille Pissarro and painted with Cézanne, though his early paintings, such as this, didn't bring much praise.

Garden under Snow by Paul GauguinMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Copenhagen, Denmark

In 1873 Gauguin married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad, and had five children. In 1884, Gad moved their family to Copenhagen, desperate for money Gauguin took a job as a tarpaulin salesman. He couldn't speak Danish, and the tarpaulins didn't sell. The marriage soon broke down.

Pont-Aven, France

Gauguin returned to Paris. Living alone and in poverty, in 1886 he decided to move to the artist colony of Pont-Aven, where he found himself unexpectedly popular. 

He painted landscapes and the Breton peasants of the region in a style clearly influenced by Edgar Degas.

Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven by Paul GauguinNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC


In 1887, Gauguin and his friend Charles Laval travelled to Panama, and on their return journey ended up in Martinique.  Both Laval and Gauguin fell ill with dysentery and malaria, and soon returned to France.

Arles, France

In October 1888, Gauguin accepts an invitation by artistic admirer Vincent van Gogh move to Arles where Vincent hoped to start the 'Studio of the South', much like the Pont-Aven School up north. Gauguin has never met Vincent, but goes anyway.

However the relationship was fraught, and they argued constantly about art and morals. It was following an argument with Gauguin that Vincent van Gogh infamously sliced off his ear. Gauguin, understandably concerned, soon left. But the two continued to exchange letters .

Vincent van Gogh painting sunflowers by Paul GauguinVan Gogh Museum

Tahiti, French Polynesia

Gauguin visited Tahiti twice, first in 1891, and again in 1895. These were his most productive, and controversial periods. He seems to have imagined the islands as primitive, pleasure-driven idylls, and been disappointed when he first arrived.

He painted many portraits of the island's young girls, and even 'married' one, Teha'amana, just thirteen years old, in a native ceremony. Teha'amana was the subject of many of his paintings, and the father of his child, but in 1893 he abandoned her.

Merahi metua no Tehamana by Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)The Art Institute of Chicago

Marquesas Islands

After many years living and working in Tahiti, he realised his dream of moving to the Marquesas Islands. In 1901 he settled in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa. His health was failing him, and he suffered from undiagnosed syphilis.

Gauguin increasingly alienated himself. By 1903, his body was ravaged by disease, his young wife Vaeoho had left him, the local bishop and police were concerned by his primitivist ideas, and he wrote open letters attacking the authorities. He died suddenly on the 8th of May. 

Learn more about the unsettling legacy of Paul Gauguin here.  

Contes barbares (Barbarian Tales) by Paul GauguinMuseum Folkwang

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