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Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin, 1889 Self-Portrait, 1885
Christ in the Garden of Olives, 1885 Self-Portrait with Manao tupapau, 1893-1894

Mythic Artist

Outspoken, charismatic, and ferociously egotistical, Gauguin enlisted all of his talents in the careful construction of a potent self-mythology. Often spun from a kernel of truth, Gauguin's tales about himself were marked by exaggeration and fabrication. His numerous self-portraits were part of an effort to craft a public image, as well as a means of understanding himself and his role in the world.

Central to Gauguin's mythology was his identification as a "savage," understood by him to mean wild, free, and primitive. He claimed to be of Inca descent, saying, "You know I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it's reflected in everything I do.... I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery." Gauguin did spend his early childhood in Peru, where his great-uncle had been the Spanish viceroy. But his claim of ancestral ties to the native population held no truth, revealing more about his personality than his biography.

In his self-portraits, Gauguin presented himself as both a prophet and a martyr. In one painting, he is Lucifer, the fallen angel; in another he is Christ, the outsider suffering on behalf of humanity. He saw himself on the margins of society, a wanderer, outlaw, and observer, a heroic artist seeking deeper truths.

Self-Portrait with Manao tupapau
1893–1894
oil on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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