A successful businessman, Gauguin soon rejected bourgeois values to paint full-time. His family, his wife of eleven years and their five children, rejected his new lifestyle and asked him to leave. Like his friend Van Gogh, Gauguin was susceptible to depression, and he had on at least one occasion attempted suicide. Despite his desire to become a success in the Paris art world, in 1891 Gauguin sailed to Tahiti, in order to escape European civilization with “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
Gauguin seeks a romanticized paradise in Tahiti, but he quickly finds the realities of living as an artist abroad overpowering his imagined paradise. Imported art supplies are expensive, the locals were willing to model for him in exchange for gifts, but they do not accept him, and no one in Tahiti will buy his work. Despite living frugally, he suffers from financial worries and attempts suicide by drinking arsenic in 1897. Finding Tahiti too expensive, he leaves for the Marquesas Islands. Soon Gauguin gets into legal trouble for taking the natives’ side against French colonialists and on 27 March 1903 Gauguin is charged with libeling the Islands’ governor. He is fined 500 francs and sentenced to three months in prison. Upon appeal, he had his sentence reduced to 500 francs and one month in prison. On 8 May 1903, before he could serve his time in prison, Gauguin dies from a morphine overdose at the age of 54.
While Gauguin was a little more successful in the Paris art world than his friend Van Gogh, he never really broke through. Acknowledgement of the importance of his work would come after his death. Both Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s work would come to heavily influence the next generation of Modern artists, including both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
In an effort to devalue his work, much has been made about Gauguin’s life abroad. Deconstructionalists are now looking at his life and work through the lens of post-colonialism and feminism. Some have even argued that despite his championing of native rights against colonialist incursion, his presence on the island alone is enough to condemn him. Others have made much about Gauguin’s abandoning his family. He never abandoned his family, he was asked to leave, and even then, he kept in contact with them until his death. In many ways Gauguin was a terrible man, his temperament, excessive drinking, and bullying of his friends are recorded, but perhaps the one thing that we can find to irrecoverably stain Gauguin’s life is his taking of an underage mistress while living on Tahiti. Yes, we can find this deplorable, but I do not think it is enough to damn the work he produced. While the artist’s life and the artist’s work sometimes inhabit the same time and place, it is important to remember that they are in fact, two different spheres. You can’t simply damn the artwork for the sins of the artist.
Below are some of my favorite works by Paul Gauguin. Click the image to enlarge.