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Paul Gauguin

Gauguin was a financially successful stockbroker and self-taught amateur artist when he began collecting works by the impressionists in the 1870s. Inspired by their example, he took up the study of painting under Camille Pissarro. Pissarro and Edgar Degas arranged for him to show his early painting efforts in the fourth impressionist exhibition in 1879 (as well as the annual impressionist exhibitions held through 1882). In 1882, after a stock market crash and recession rendered him unemployed and broke, Gauguin decided to abandon the business world to pursue life as an artist full-time.

In 1886, Gauguin went to Pont-Aven in Brittany, a rugged land of fervently religious people far from the urban sophistication of Paris. There he forged a new style. He was at the center of a group of avant-garde artists who dedicated themselves to synthétisme, ordering and simplifying sensory data to its fundamentals. Gauguin's greatest innovation was his use of color, which he employed not for its ability to mimic nature but for its emotive qualities. He applied it in broad flat areas outlined with dark paint, which tended to flatten space and abstract form. This flattening of space and symbolic use of color would be important influences on early twentieth-century artists.

In Brittany, Gauguin had hoped to tap the expressive potential he believed rested in a more rural, even "primitive" culture. Over the next several years he traveled often between Paris and Brittany, spending time also in Panama and Martinique. In 1891 his rejection of European urban values led him to Tahiti, where he expected to find an unspoiled culture, exotic and sensual. Instead, he was confronted with a world already transformed by western missionaries and colonial rule. In large measure, Gauguin had to invent the world he sought, not only in paintings but with woodcarvings, graphics, and written works. As he struggled with ways to express the questions of life and death, knowledge and evil that preoccupied him, he interwove the images and mythology of island life with those of the west and other cultures. After a trip to France (1893 to 1895), Gauguin returned to spend his remaining years, marred by illness and depression, in the South Seas.

Brittany Landscape, 1888, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.148

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Three light-skinned girls hold hands to create a loose ring with their arms extended, in a grassy field in this horizontal painting. All three girls wear white headdresses, ankle-length, long-sleeved dresses, and clogs. Each dress has a wide white collar that extends beyond the shoulders. A ruby-red flower is pinned to the brown apron on the two girls whose fronts we see. Their features and clothing are outlined in cobalt blue and filled in with parallel, often visible strokes. To our left, a girl stands with both arms stretched out, one holding the hand of the girl next to her, to our right. The first girl looks off into the distance to our left with dark eyes. She has a button nose, and her peach-colored lips curve down at the corners. Her auburn-red hair is tucked back under her bonnet. Her dress is navy blue, and her stockings are brick red. She steps forward onto her right foot, to our left. The second girl, holding the first girls’ hand, stands facing our right in profile, looking slightly down. Her features are indistinct, but she also seems to have a snub nose and her pink lips are closed. She has blond hair and an emerald-green dress. Her hazelnut-brown stockings match her apron. She also steps forward, but onto her left foot. The third girl stands with her back to us, seen between the first two, as she looks over her shoulder to our right in profile. Her left arm is also raised but her right arm is hidden behind the second girl. The third girl has brown hair and a pointed nose. Her dress is black, and she steps forward onto her right foot. A small dog with brown and white speckled fur sniffs at the grass to our right of the girls. Piles of long grass or hay dot the lemon-lime green field, which dips down behind the girls and to our left to meet a low, stone gray wall. Buildings in plum purple, ivory white, terracotta orange, and ocean blue span the width of the painting beyond the wall. One narrow spire reaches above the other rooflines. Tall, narrow, dark green trees are interspersed among the buildings, and a hill climbs nearly to the top of the canvas to our left. A few thin slate-gray clouds float across a narrow band of shell-pink sky above. The artist signed and dated the work in lower right corner, “P. Gauguin 88.”

Gauguin wrote to art dealer Theo van Gogh (brother of Vincent), "I am doing a gavotte bretonne: three little girls dancing in a hayfield. . . . ‰The painting seems original to me, and I am quite pleased with the composition." The subject itself was a familiar one; Breton dances, religious processions, and other peasant scenes by academic painters were shown with some frequency at the Salon. Parisian audiences would have recognized the girls' triangular bonnets, broad collars, and wooden shoes immediately.

But Gauguin's aim was not to present an anecdotal view of life in Brittany. The somnolent, ritualistic quality of the girls' dance conveys ambiguity. His dancers loom overlarge in front of a stone wall, their size emphasized by small heaps of grain. Gauguin's eye was also trained on concerns of color and form. The girls' linked arms create a sinuous chain of zigzags that seems to fence them into a narrow space. This effect is enhanced by strong contrasts of color: the dark dresses and white collars, the brilliant poppies attached to their smocks, and the green of new hay.

The town of Pont-Aven and its church spire can be recognized in the background of this scene. In 1886, the year after he painted his gavotte, Gauguin found the place overcrowded with artists. Seeking a more isolated—and less expensive—environment, he and several colleagues took up residence in Le Pouldu, a small hamlet nine kilometers distant.

Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, 1888, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.19

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A dark-haired, disembodied head of a haloed man with pale, peach skin floats against a red and yellow background in this vertical portrait. The man’s hair seems to be flattened against his forehead, and extends beyond his head at the back in a way that suggests it may become a cap or hood. His face turns toward us, and he looks down to our left under arched eyebrows. He has a prominent hooked nose and a brushy mustache. Behind his head, the background is divided into a tomato-red zone for the top half and a golden yellow field below, separated by a thin, pine-green line. Two red and green apples hang from a branch near the upper right corner. The thin yellow halo floats over his head to the left of the branch. A pine-green, stylized, vine-like form curves up from the bottom edge of the panel and ends with flat, sunshine yellow, square shapes, perhaps abstracted flowers or fruit. A hand near the lower right holds one end of the vine like a cigarette between fingertips. The vine seems to turn into a serpent’s head beyond the man’s fingers. Numbers and letters are painted in green in the lower left: “1889” and “P Go.”

Gauguin painted many self-portraits, but few are as enigmatic as this one. It was among the work that Gauguin and his student Meyer Isaac de Haan created to decorate the dining room of the inn where they were staying in Le Pouldu, near Pont-Aven. In the six weeks after their arrival in late 1889, they made dozens of ceramic works, woodcarvings, and sculptures, and covered the walls with paintings. This self-portrait, and one Gauguin did of de Haan, were painted on a pair of cupboard doors.

At the time, Gauguin's likeness was described by friends as an "unkind character sketch"—a caricature. Today, it is the subject of intense analysis. Some see the artist casting himself in the role of Satan, others as Christ. What are we to make of the imagery—the apples that precipitate man's fall from grace; the halo over Gauguin's disembodied head; the snake that is both tempter of Eve and the embodiment of knowledge; the bold division into vivid yellow and red, evocative of both hellfire and the heat of creation? Perhaps it is most likely that Gauguin is revealing his conception of the artist as hero, and—almost to challenge his colleagues—of himself, particularly, as a kind of magus, a master who knows that he possesses the power of magic by virtue of talent and genius.

Self-Portrait, 1889, oil on wood, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.150

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We look across rolling, bright green pastures and honey-brown farmland to a cluster of buildings nestled beyond a copse of trees, along the horizon in this horizontal, stylized landscape painting. The scene is painted with mostly flat areas of color. Closest to us, low, vibrant green pastures are bisected by a narrow, gingerbread-brown path. The path meanders from the lower left corner of the composition to a metal gate, near the right edge of the painting. A short distance from us to our left, a man wearing navy-blue pants, shirt, and hat walks along the top of a hill, hands in pockets. Two black and white cows and one brown and white cow graze nearby. In the distance, the copse of trees is painted with pockets of pumpkin orange, lavender purple, sky blue, and spring and muted sage green. Beyond the trees, a white, square, two-story house with a spruce-blue roof sits within the grouping of buildings. Another white building with a blue roof stands a bit to our right. Wisps of white clouds dot a vivid blue sky, which is tinted with pale pink and lilac purple near the horizon. The artist signed and dated the work in harvest yellow against a mound of dark brown rocks in the lower right corner: “P. Gauguin 90.”

After his first stay in Brittany, Gauguin returned to Paris in time for the 1889 international exposition marking the centennial of the French Revolution. Refused space at the official art exhibition, he mounted an independent show with several colleagues near the entrance to the huge fair, billing their work "impressioniste et synthétiste," but it was not a success. He decided to escape Paris and its scornful critics. Among the most popular attractions at the exposition, and Gauguin's personal favorites, had been performances by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and a troupe of Javanese dancers—Gauguin began to talk of emigrating to the more exotic lands of Tonkin (Vietnam), Madagascar, or Tahiti. But he returned instead to Brittany.

In 1889 he found the village of Pont-Aven crowded with artists. Seeking a more isolated—and less expensive—environment, he and several colleagues took up residence in Le Pouldu, a small hamlet nine kilometers distant. From there they made many expeditions to the countryside, but their landscapes, like this one, were painted primarily from memory and sketches. "Don't copy nature too literally," Gauguin advised. "Art is abstraction; draw art as you dream in nature's presence, and think more about the act of creation than about the final result."

Landscape at Le Pouldu, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1983.1.20

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We look out onto a landscape with tawny-brown haystacks and trees among a patchwork of moss, lime, mint, and pine-green fields in this stylized, horizontal painting. The scene is painted with mostly flat areas of color. Closest to us, along the bottom edge of the canvas, a woman wearing a white cap and dress and a navy-blue jacket stands among three black and white spotted cows, which form a line facing our left in profile. Several round, tangerine-orange forms surround the head of the cow near the lower right corner. The strip of land on the other side of the cows is divided into alternating rows of spring green and coral pink to our left, and forest green dotted with white to our right. The landscape stretches to the horizon, which comes two-thirds of the way up the composition. Rectangular parcels of land are dotted with four rust-brown haystacks beyond the cows, and trees cluster around several brown roofs in the distance to our right. A band of cream-white clouds lines the horizon beneath the topaz-blue sky above. The artist signed and dated the work in dark paint against the white of the cow in the lower right corner: “P. Gauguin 90.”

This stylized view of fields and farm buildings near Le Pouldu is typical of the so-called synthétiste works that Gauguin painted in Brittany in 1890. Its forms are simplified, abstracted to their essence. In 1888, Gauguin had defined his goal as " . . . synthesis of form and color derived from the observation of only the dominant element."

The friezelike procession of cows and cowherd in the foreground coaxes our eye to move horizontally, and we find that the entire composition is arranged into bands, layered one on the other. Even the sky is stratified. Strong contrasts of dark and light—exploited especially in the black-and-white cows and the flowering crops—flatten forms, rendering them more decorative than descriptive. The vivid and unexpected oranges in the foreground do not mimic nature but cast it according to the artist's imagination. Notice how the silhouette of the cow at right is outlined against the orange with dark blue. In many places similar outlines compartmentalize colors, in the manner of cloisonné enamels or stained glass. This was a style Gauguin had evolved with fellow artist Emile Bernard. It grew out of Bernard's interest in medieval art and Gauguin'€™s own fascination with Japanese prints.

Haystacks in Brittany, 1890 oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.11

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A nude woman with brown skin and long black hair stands to our right against a landscape swirling with jewel-toned greens, pinks, and purples while a man, also with brown skin, sits under a tree behind her in this stylized vertical painting. The woman's body is angled to our right, and she cuts her black eyes back to look off to our left. She touches her chin with the fingertips of her right hand, closer to us, while her left hand holds a white cloth over her groin. The ground beneath her is swirled with bright pink, lilac purple, and some strokes of canary yellow. To our left and behind the woman, the man wears a topaz-blue robe, and he kneels with his hands on his knees. A band of vivid orange and kelly green in front of his knees could be abstracted flowers. His oval face is rimmed with a band of black. He has a wide nose, and his pink lips are parted to reveal his teeth. His eyes are wide open as he looks down under black brows. A craggy, dark teal-blue tree trunk curves up and across the background, and a red and green faced serpent floats near the upper right corner. The artist signed, dated, and inscribed the title in the lower left corner,

It is unlikely that anyone who saw this painting when it was exhibited in Paris in 1893 would have understood the Tahitian legend Gauguin inscribed on it. Its symbolism remains complex. The masked kneeling figure is the varua ino of the title, a malevolent spirit who materializes as strange and frightening humanoid forms. The standing woman, on the other hand, is associated through her gestures evoking modesty and shame with western images of Eve after the fall. When Gauguin traveled to Polynesia, he took with him a collection of photographs—of Renaissance paintings, the Parthenon, the Buddhist temple of Borobudur—and often incorporated these images in his Tahitian painting.

Yet this is not simply a western theme in Polynesian guise. Among the women of Tahiti, Gauguin discovered profound spiritual forces at work. In this Polynesian Eve, he envisioned a channel through which spiritual energy entered the everyday world. Probably she represented knowledge of good and evil, of life and human morality—part of Gauguin's long fascination with life and death. At the upper right, under the curiously serpentine red and green face, Gauguin inserts himself into the scene with the depiction of a sketchy hand, an emblem he used also in self-portraits.

Parau na te Varua ino (Words of the Devil), 1892, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman, 1972.9.12

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Two nude women with brown skin and long black hair stand with their backs to us at a riverbank in this stylized horizontal painting. The body of the woman to our left is angled to our left with her hands raised, presumably about to plunge into the teal-colored water. The woman to our right unwraps a cloth patterned with bright yellow flowers on a deep purple background from her waist. Between the women and farther away, a bare-chested man, also with brown skin, wears a tomato-red garment across his hips as he stands hip-deep in the water holding a long spear. The top of his head is cropped by the top edge of the painting. Along the left edge of the canvas, a gnarled tree is painted as a flat field of dark, charcoal gray, and it rises off the side and top of the composition. An area of the same color, perhaps a thick root or the trunk growing nearly horizontally, spans the width of the painting, separating the women from us. The area around the trunk to our left and right is painted with fields of evergreen and cool mint. Closer to us, along the front of the root, a field of rosy pink swirls with grape purple to suggest sand. This area is dotted with harvest-yellow and pumpkin-orange vines and stylized flowers. A bunch of vivid orange flowers with pine and spring-green leaves sits on the root near the trunk, to our left. Most of the painting, especially the landscape, is painted with areas of mostly flat color. In the bottom left corner, the artist has written the title of the painting in darkred paint: “Fatata te Miki.” In the lower right corner, he signed and dated the work with periwinkle blue: “P. Gauguin 92.”

Like Parau na te Varua ino, Fatata te Miti was painted during Gauguin's first trip to Tahiti. Its setting, in fact, is quite similar. The two paintings share brilliant pink sands and vividly colored accents, the brilliant fringed blossoms of the phosphorescing hutu, and on the left the same unusually shaped tree. These similarities point to Gauguin's use of "documents," the term he used for sketches and working drawings that he would incorporate into many paintings and prints.

Their similarities invite us to compare the two works, and in other respects we find they are quite different. Where Parau na te Varua ino is densely symbolic, this painting is a more straight-forward depiction of life on the island. One woman removes her pareo to join a companion already plunging into the sea for a swim. Nearby a man fishes with a spear. The intense, tropical colors—hot oranges and cool blues—convey sensual delight. This is the effortless and uninhibited paradise that Gauguin had hoped to find in the South Seas. Little remained of this life, however, by the time Gauguin reached Tahiti. Polynesian culture had been transformed by western missionaries and colonialism, and the ancient religion replaced by Christianity. Gauguin wrote and illustrated a manuscript about Polynesian mythology, but most of what he knew about the island gods came from previously published sources.

Fatata te Miti (By the Sea), 1892, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.149

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Four young women with olive-green-colored skin shaded with cool blue stand or sit in a vividly colored landscape surrounded by trees in this horizontal painting. A slender, spruce-blue tree divides the picture just to our left of center. The ground around the tree spans the width of the composition and is carpeted in coral orange, carnation pink, and lavender purple with a handful of emerald-green saplings and tufts of grass. A pair of young women are to each side of the central tree, and a body of water extends across the composition just beyond this bit of land. To our left, the two women’s bodies face away, and they look back over their left shoulders at us. The girl on the left has black hair and wears a honey-orange and pale blue fabric wrapped around her waist. The girl next to her has copper-red hair with a pink cloth wrapped around her chest. They stand by or in the water so are shown from the knees up. The water there is made up of swirling pools of flame red and golden yellow bordered by lilac purple and peacock blue. On the other side of the tree, a young woman with white flowers in her brown hair sits on the ground, also with her back to us. The fourth faces us along the right edge of the canvas. She has black hair and stands next to and touches a thicker tree trunk with one hand. These two women are nude. The water beyond them is painted with patches of rose pink, lemon yellow, and ice blue. Areas mottled with teal, honeydew, and bottle green suggest shrubs and trees lining the far side of the water. Closer inspection reveals two ghostly, pale blue dogs lying on the ground near the lower right corner. The artist signed and dated in lower right, “P Gauguin 97.”

Like Te Pape Nave Nave, this work was painted after Gauguin's return to Tahiti from Paris. Notice how the colors of these later pictures are nuanced, more blended than the flatter, more intense hues found in the two earlier ones. He has still outlined many of his shapes, yet they nonetheless appear softer, and the large areas of colors are neither so bold nor so distinct. Here, especially, the coarse texture and heavy weave of the canvas add a tapestrylike effect. Whereas the earlier works from Tahiti are vivid and direct, those painted during this second trip have a more dreamlike appearance and spiritual intensity. The figures are more monumental, with an aura of timelessness and dignity. And their color is more expressive.

Gauguin had always been preoccupied with the role of color, calling it a "profound and mysterious language, a language of the dream." He described its effects as akin to music and its relationships to musical harmonies. The gentle tones here—the soft mat of pinks that carpets the foreground, the swirls of lavender water—seem to be scented with the sweet perfumes of paradise. This is one of the most sumptuous of all Gauguin's paintings. The Bathers probably once belonged to Edgar Degas, who owned several works by Gauguin.

The Bathers, 1897, oil on canvas, Gift of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951.5.1

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Four young women with medium brown skin sit or stand on a pumpkin-orange ground in this horizontal painting. The women are divided into pairs by a broad, gold, undulating brushstroke running down the middle of the ground they occupy. They are mostly nude, and three have long black hair while one has flame-red hair. To our left, the woman with red hair stands facing us, wearing a glittering, silver necklace as she gazes off to our right. She presses a white patch, perhaps the end of a loincloth, to her upper leg with both hands. Seated next to her is a woman with most of her body turned away from us. She leans over onto her left arm and turns her head over that shoulder to look down and off to our right. Both women to our right are seated close to each other, their shoulders overlapping. One woman wears a white cloth around the hip we can see, and the other wears knee-length breeches. They both look toward us. Beyond the women is what appears to be a stream running diagonally from the lower left to end in a small pool in the middle right. It transitions from muted oranges and green to smoky blue and gray. Opposite us, more orange ground is lined with dense groves of dark green trees that wind into the distance. A woman wearing a coral-colored hood and blue robe holds the arm of a child, and a black dog crouches at their feet. They stand near a slightly larger-than-life-sized topaz-blue statue of a standing woman with her elbows bent and arms raised. The sky beyond the trees is streaked and swirled with bright orange, yellow, and blue. The artist signed and dated the painting, along with the title, in the lower left corner, “Paul Gauguin 98 TE PAPE NAVE NAVE.”

In 1898, Gauguin sent a group of works from Tahiti for exhibition in Paris. The centerpiece was a painting more than twelve-feet long on hemp sacking material with the French inscription, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Intended to be seen with it were eight smaller works based on motifs excerpted from Where are we going? These were not preparatory studies but variations painted after the larger work was completed. They represented a kind of rethinking or perhaps summing up by the artist. This painting is one of these smaller works.

One figure that recurs from the larger work is the blue goddess. She is the deity Hina, prominent in an ancient Polynesian creation myth, whom Gauguin represented in sculpture and painting repeatedly. Gauguin's interpretation of her appearance is based upon a variety of sources from Hindu and South Asian art and culture. Gauguin described Hina as an emblem of the "hereafter," alluding to both the cycles of life represented in the work (by the infant and old woman) and his stated intention that the grouping of work would be his final artistic statement. Experiencing numerous maladies, financial problems, and depression, he intended to commit suicide when the work was finished (he died several years later at age 54 from a variety of diseases he had contracted). Despite these seemingly explicit biographical interpretations, this painting and related canvases, like much of Gauguin's work, retain a sense of mystery. "Known symbols would congeal the canvas into a melancholy reality," he wrote, "and the problem indicated would no longer be a poem."

Te Pape Nave Nave (Delectable Waters), 1898, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1973.68.2

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