Gauguin in Tahiti

This quote came from French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin’s travelogue Noa Noa while in Tahiti. As William and Mary’s Jenny Kahn explains in this week’s episode, the painter embodied the majesty of the island of Tahiti in his art when he travelled there to live out his days.

But what made him seek refuge there? What was he running from?

On the painting above, in the top left corner, Gauguin inscribed the words and title of the work, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Let’s reflect these words onto the artist himself. Where did he come from? And what was he prior to his entrance into the art scene?

Before becoming an artist, Gauguin was a stockbroker in France, with a wife and five children. But with the Paris stock market crash of 1882, his family was left in ruins. Gauguin had to find another line of work: he decided to turn his side hobby of painting into a full-time career.

His wife retreated to her native Copenhagen, while Gauguin and his oldest son traveled together, trying to hone his craft and learn more about the art scene at the time.

Eventually, his son fell ill and was sent to boarding school. While alone, Gauguin traveled to Brittany, (a northwestern region of France), Panama, and the island of Martinique, with a collection of other aspiring artists. At first he produced very little, but then in Martinique he created between ten and twenty works. The island life seemed to agree with him.

What was he now? He was a starving artist to some; he was a neglectful father and husband to others.

Soon, his Martinique paintings caught the attention of Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother, Theo. Gauguin’s art career took off. And now we should ask—where was he going?

As a self-described “savage,” Gauguin wanted to be surrounded by pure, lush natural scenes. And he thought Tahiti was the answer. But Tahiti might have had another draw for him besides landscapes.

In his travelogue Noa Noa, he reveals that he took a wife in Tahiti: a thirteen-year-old girl named Teha’amana, called Tehura in Noa Noa. By the end of the summer of 1892, she had given birth to his child. Gauguin lived out his days on Tahiti, producing more and more work, but also taking two more young native girls as wives.

Like many other great artists, the more you learn about Gauguin, the more you might wish you didn’t know. Art critics and admirers alike see his work and continuously praise the elegant strokes and verdant subject matter. They assert he paid due homage to the remote and beautiful island. Others argue that he exploited the island and its people, namely, his child brides and the natives in his paintings.

So is it possible to separate Gauguin the artist, from Gauguin the man? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in that painting inscription. What do you believe? What is he?