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Paul Gauguin's (1848–1903) famous image as the original Western “savage” was his own embellishment upon reality. That persona was, for him, the modern manifestation of the "natural man" constructed by his idol, the philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Gauguin's rejection of the industrialized West led him to embrace handmade arts and crafts as creative endeavors equivalent to other, more conventionally accepted art forms. In his self-conceived role as ideal artist-artisan, he produced an original and rich body of work in varied media, dissolving the traditional boundaries between high art and decoration.
The artist and his older sister Marie were born in Paris to highly literate upper-middle-class parents from France and Peru. Gauguin's early life was shaped by his family's liberal political activism and their blood ties spanning the Old and New Worlds. His father, Clovis Gauguin, was a journalist; his maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan (Flora Tristán y Moscoso), was a Peruvian Creole and a celebrated socialist active in France.
In 1849 Gauguin’s parents fled France for Peru with their two young children, fearing repercussions from Louis-Napoleon (later emperor Napoleon III), who had not received support from Clovis’ paper as the republic’s presidential candidate. Clovis Gauguin died during the passage; young Paul would spend his childhood in colonial Lima, Peru, and his adolescence in his father's native city of Orléans, France. Though his widowed mother had few means beyond a modest salary as a seamstress in Orléans, the boy was surrounded in both cities by prosperity and culture, thanks to family and friends.
In the late 1860s Gauguin traveled the world with the merchant marines as a third-class military seaman. He started painting and building an art collection when he settled in Paris as a stockbroker in 1872. Having inherited trust funds from his grandparents and earning good money in his new career, he lived well, marrying a middle-class Danish woman, Mette, in 1873, and had five children with her. After learning to paint and model on his own, Gauguin studied with neighboring professional artists. Intellectually restless and independent, he sought and absorbed information from myriad sources, synthesizing them into his own aesthetic. In 1879 Gauguin joined the "indépendants" (impressionists), thanks in part to Camille Pissarro, another New World transplant (from Danish Saint-Thomas) who became a special mentor. Gauguin exhibited regularly with them, earning modest critical attention, until the group disbanded in 1886.
Gauguin lost his job in the brokerage world after the financial crash of 1882. He moved his family to the more affordable town of Rouen and became a sales representative for a canvas manufacturer. However, his focus on art and political activism intensified. He undertook missions to the Spanish border to promote the Spanish republican cause. Alarmed at the dramatic change their life was taking, Mette took the children to her native Copenhagen. Gauguin followed, but soon declared the city to be unsuitable to his career and temperament. He left to pursue an independent life, though he remained in regular contact with his wife and children, largely by correspondence, for the rest of his life.
Surviving on odd jobs and often without cash, Gauguin began his lifelong nomadic existence in 1886, traveling between Paris and various “exotic” regions. In the process he became known as a colorful and controversial avant-garde artist, primarily through works sent from those remote sites for sale and exhibition in Europe. Gauguin’s travels included ill-fated moves to Panama and Martinique.
In 1888 Gauguin began spending extended time in the French provinces. He went first to Pont-Aven, Brittany, where he became familiar with the art of Émile Bernard (1868–1941), who worked in a style of bold and flat forms. Gauguin then went to Arles to join Vincent van Gogh, which proved to be an important, albeit emotionally tumultuous, artistic encounter for both men. He then returned to Brittany, to the village of Le Pouldu.
Gauguin’s final move to the Pacific Islands, with sporadic returns to Paris, occurred in 1891 with his transfer to Tahiti as head of a government-funded artistic mission. He found his dream of an unspoiled earthly paradise there severely compromised. As in Europe, he saw discord and a native culture overcome by Western values—including the need for capital to live. Nonetheless he produced prolifically, amidst quarrels with authorities, scandals, and romantic liaisons.
Various illnesses left Gauguin increasingly immobilized during his last years. He died in 1903 and was laid to rest on Atuona (Marquesas Islands).