Paul Gauguin stands as a towering figure in the transition from the Impressionist to the Symbolist art movement, marking a profound departure from the meticulous depiction of the natural world to an exploration of color, form and symbolism that would influence generations of artists. Known for his bold experimentations and incorporation of non-Western aesthetics, Gauguin's career spans several phases, each marked by a relentless pursuit of artistic renewal.

Personal Background

Paul Gauguin, born in Paris in 1848 amidst revolutionary upheavals, spent his early childhood in Peru, a period that influenced his obsession with cultures far removed from European soil. After returning to France to finish school, Gauguin pursued a conventional career as a stockbroker while nurturing an artistic hobby. The 1882 financial crisis catalyzed a dramatic shift in Gauguin's life, propelling him from a bourgeois existence into a relentless quest for artistic authenticity and innovation. This year also marked the dissolution of Gauguin's marriage and separation from his five children—a change that granted him unparalleled freedom to enter into the intoxicating milieu that was the French art scene in the 19th century. Gauguin was never to see his children again— though he controversially married three different Tahitian women and fathered multiple children with them.


Initially aligning with the Impressionists, Gauguin soon embarked on a path that diverged significantly from his peers. Influenced by his friendship with Camille Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh and exposure to Japanese prints, Gauguin's work began to exhibit a bolder use of color and a departure from traditional subject matter, focusing on native life and the natural world.

Gauguin's Martinique paintings, celebrated for their vibrant color and Symbolist motifs, caught the attention of the art world, including Vincent van Gogh. Gauguin's tumultuous relationship with van Gogh, marked by a brief but intense period of collaboration in Arles, further fueled his artistic development. Despite their eventual estrangement, this period was crucial in Gauguin's journey towards a more profound, symbolic expression.


The pinnacle of Gauguin's artistic quest was his time in Tahiti. Here, his work reached new heights, with paintings like Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower) capturing the essence of Tahitian life and culture. Gauguin's Tahitian period is celebrated for its rich palette, emotive line and incorporation of Tahitian mythology, setting him apart from his contemporaries and cementing his legacy in the art world.

Legacy and Later Life

Gauguin's later years in French Polynesia were marked by intense productivity, despite health challenges and financial hardship. His death in 1903 did little to quell the growing interest in his work, which continued to gain recognition and admiration. Today, Gauguin is celebrated not only for his contributions to Post-Impressionism and Symbolism but also for his role in shaping the trajectory of modern art.

Fun facts about Gauguin:

Failed Friendship: In 1888, Gauguin lived with Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, in a famously troubled collaboration that aimed to form an artist collective. The intense period ended dramatically after van Gogh severed his own ear.

An Artist's Writings: Gauguin was also an accomplished writer. His travelogue "Noa Noa" detailed his experiences in Tahiti, offering insights into his thoughts and methodologies. The work combines observations, philosophical musings and fictional elements, providing a deeper understanding of his artistic intentions.

Eccentric Beliefs: Gauguin held unconventional beliefs for his time, including a fascination with the occult and various esoteric philosophies. These beliefs often influenced the symbolic elements of his artwork.

A Royal Descendant: It is claimed that Gauguin was a descendant of the Inca royalty through his Peruvian mother. This noble lineage, whether true or part of Gauguin's personal mythology, underscored his lifelong fascination with exotic cultures and identities beyond the European bourgeois.

Greatest Works


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going by Paul Gauguin. 1897-1898. MFA Boston.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898)

This monumental work, created in Tahiti, epitomizes Gauguin's quest for existential meaning through art. The painting's narrative, read from right to left, explores themes of birth, life and death, and is a testament to Gauguin's use of vibrant colors and symbolic imagery to probe the mysteries of existence. Its presentation at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and subsequent exhibitions solidified Gauguin's status as a pivotal figure in the Symbolist movement.


Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gauguin. 1888. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.

Vision After the Sermon (1888)

A pivotal work that marks Gauguin's break from Impressionism, this painting depicts Breton women envisioning Jacob wrestling with the angel after a sermon. The bold use of color and the juxtaposition of the vision against the reality of the women's presence underscore Gauguin's departure towards Symbolism. This piece is often cited as a key example of his innovative use of color and form to convey spiritual and emotional depth.


Tahitian Women on the Beach by Paul Gauguin. 1891. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891)
This work is notable for its harmonious depiction of Tahitian life, blending the island's natural beauty with the serene composure of its inhabitants. The painting reflects Gauguin's fascination with and idealization of Tahitian culture, showcasing his distinctive approach to color and form.