Had it not been for a stock market crash, French artist Paul Gauguin may never have realized his dream of a simpler life. Gauguin’s first career was in the stock market in Paris, where he met his wife Mette and started a family. However, when he was 35 years old, the bottom fell out of the stock market, so he turned to his first love, painting, in order to make a living. He could no longer support his family, so his wife and five children returned to her family in Denmark.
He stayed on in Paris to hone his skills with his contemporaries Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissaro, with whom he studied Impressionism. After a brief and unsuccessful return to his family and the business world in Denmark in 1885, he went back to France to again pursue what he considered his life’s work. He spent his time between Paris and Pont-Aven, a rural avant-garde artist colony in western France, where he could live among the religious peasants of Brittany and be comforted and inspired by their simple, nearly primitive, values.
It was at this time that his painting evolved from Post-Impressionism to Synthetism, which flattened subjects to two dimensions and made use of unnatural yet symbolic colors for an emotive effect. A leader of the Synthetism movement, Gauguin also frequently outlined elements in black to compartmentalize colors, evocative of cloisonné or stained glass. This was one of his favorite techniques, and can be noted in “The Yellow Christ,” 1889 and “Haystacks in Brittany,” 1890.
In no small part because of his continuing disillusionment with Western civilization and its emphasis on material gain and disregard for human emotion, Gauguin left France and sailed to the South Seas in 1891, seeking a culture still untouched by European domination. He landed in Tahiti, where he was captivated by the innocence and simplicity of the natives, whom he considered “Primitives.”
Gauguin relished the untamed power of primitive art forms and used bold and unique colors to convey the wildness he sensed. His paintings were at the same time symbolic, religious and metaphysical. “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897-98) is one of Gauguin’s masterpieces from his days in Tahiti. “The Bathers,” 1898, is considered by many to be his most sensual.
In his use of nude females with oversized features and massive avant-garde sculptures, Picasso vividly demonstrated Gauguin’s influence. “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” 1907, is a striking example of the enduring ideas inspired in Picasso by Gauguin.
Gauguin’s work was largely unappreciated until after his death at age 54 in 1903, when sophisticated Europeans, uninformed about the primitive culture he had captured in the South Seas, realized the power of his work.