Gaugain’s Tahitian Paintings


Gauguin’s art has been defined under several titles. Some label him Post-Impressionist, others would say that he commenced the Symbolist movement. But in order to explain the significance of Gauguin’s move to Tahiti I will loosely term Paul Gauguin a ‘Romantic’.
The age of industrialisation inevitably brought resentment, those that rejected the hypocrisy of smog-ridden, poverty-stricken ‘Dickensian’ slums of the major cities of Europe, which coexisted with the burgeoning material wealth of the upper classes. The ‘primitive’ country life was no longer something that was taken for granted, but something that seemed threatened by mechanisation.
Thus, ‘Romantics’ choose to distance themselves from this ‘modern condition’. Paul Gauguin embodies this desire to rediscover the primitive and non-materialistic. He was born in Paris ion 1848, but moved with the family to Peru when Napoleon took power. It seems that while in Peru, Gaugain developed a love for it’s exotic nature and resented the fact that he had to return to the dull and provincial Orleans.
His job as a stockbroker earned him money, a business reputation and a good home. However, all this was ruined by a stock market crash in 1883. During his time as a stockbroker he had developed a keen interest in painting, taking lessons from the Impressionist, Pissarro. However, the crash had meant that paintings he produced in this time sold poorly. After searching for jobs to sustain his family he decided, in 1887, to abandon them and go to work in Panama to “live like a native”.
He once said, “I have escaped everything artificial and conventional. Here I enter into Truth, become one with Nature”. To us, this may seem quite passé: We have witnessed the rediscovering of existentialist literature, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde in the 60’s hippie movement. We witness, at present, the protests against war, foxhunting and globalisation. Throughout the 20th century there has been a steady inclination to ‘primitivism’ as a way of escaping artificiality and modern life and finding something that is ‘pure’ and fundamental. Another ‘primitive’ artist is Henri Rousseau, who communicated an untouched paradise through having no formal training, painting on ‘raw emotion’ rather than intellectualism. Art Primitivism is no less acknowledged today. One only needs mention Chris Offili, who won the Turner Prize for his magical religious pictures using elephant dung and beads.
However, Gauguin was disappointed that his dream of a paradise had been ruined by colonial snobbery and the way the French colonies indigenous population now ‘served’ France. He visited Tahiti a total of two times, the second he spent writing newspaper articles attacking the French administration, as well as painting. In response, the French government and church sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment. Gauguin died on 8 of May 1903 at the age of 54 before he could serve the sentence. He died penniless, starving and ill, resented by the authorities, but much admired by the art world, who put together an exhibition of his work, almost confirming Paul Gauguin’s acceptance into one of the leading artist’s of the day, and the history of art. Gauguin’s painting is a result of the rejection of the cuckolds of materialism, more importantly, his practice is not just a way of painting but a way of thinking.
In this essay I shall discuss how his work reflects this radicalism and how his techniques and approach to painting in general is both informed by the environment and manner of Tahitian life, and how this differs from (or is qualified by) Gaugain’s contemporaries. In particular, I shall select work from his two visits to Tahiti.


Gauguin painted this picture early in his first visit to Tahiti, having arrived there in 1891. The three year stay in Tahiti was a difficult one for Gauguin. He arrived there in the hope of finding a source of commissions from the King of Tahiti, who died as soon as Gauguin arrived. Eventually, he found peace outside the capital, which he described as “Paris all over again”. Having found little way of making money and finding food, Gauguin had to ask the French authorities to send him back to France, which he considered a humiliation.
This is perhaps one of Gauguin’s most famous paintings. Its simple composition conforms to the Western tradition of portraiture, it is divided one third by two thirds at the shoulders and has the sitter’s head turned half way. Even the clothes are westernised. This is coupled with some very revolutionary aspects. Most noticeable is the garish and clashing colour scheme with comprises of red, yellow and purple. It is important to note that instead of using the palette as a ‘mixing pot’ to create tones to translate reality, Gauguin uses colour to evoke feelings and emotions.
Though a simple concept that it taken for granted today, to use paint to symbolise and create moods and abstract ideas would have been daring and very imaginative. This is why many attribute Gauguin to being one of the first ‘Symbolists’ rather than a Post-Impressionist. Impressionism uses paint to create a glimpse or impression of reality, while Symbolism communicates what cannot always be seen, but more sensed. It is easy to see how Gauguin could have come to this conclusion logically, having spent time observing natives such as the subject of this portrait and their religious practices. The crux of Tahitian religion was the supernatural and instinct (i.e. based on feelings).
Gauguin’s colours also serve to summarise the bright colours he would have seen in Tahiti. The yellow and red can be likened to natural pigments found in fruits or blood. These surroundings would then be affected and enhanced by Tahiti’s bright midday light, which the colours certainly reflect as Gauguin has used warm tones. There are also subtle use of colour that makes this painting a brilliant work of art in terms of technique and aesthetics. For example, Gauguin’s use of orange in the flower the girl holds connects the background and the foreground.
Then there is the lack of perspective, which further exaggerates the picture’s primitive tendencies. However, we must be cautious in defining which parts are ‘realist’ and which parts are ‘Symbolist’. There is no doubt that Gauguin had great talent in observation, as he started from a traditionalist base. Moving towards his own style away from the ‘static’ and staid collections of art dealers was a conscious effort. I would not call this picture entirely Symbolist and there are many parts that remain an ambiguous compromise. For example, the lack of contrast on the face could emphasise the flatness of the piece, or it could realistically express the strong sunlight that is so constant in the Tahitian colonies.
Finally, Gauguin separates and breaks up the flat colour with black outlines. We see this occurring throughout Gauguin’s work as a way of escaping realism and separating colour so that the painting becomes further simplified. Compare this with the Impressionists, who simply laid colours next to each other so that their juxtaposition would create a blurred perception of the actual colour. Gauguin’s black lines emphasise the painting’s primitive disposition, but rarely is his line work tacky or clumsy.


This picture is painted in oils on board and was one of the last to be painted before Gauguin left Tahiti to form an exhibition in 1893. The colour is vivid and the oil is laid on thickly, suggesting that by the time it came to paint this image Gauguin had found a source of paint, as his resources where often stretched. The results were paintings such as ‘Papitee Market’, painted while in Tahiti, and clearly shows how Gauguin had to thin the oils down considerably so he could afford to use less. However, here is one of his brightest and intense pictures, showing even more colour variation than ‘Tahitian Girl With Flower’. Consequently, this has become a popular poster and is one of Gauguin’s best loved and most reproduced work.
It is also especially pleasing to look at because of its complimentary colour scheme, contrary to ‘Girl With A Flower’, who’s tones seem more artificial. The predominant colours here are red and green (both complimentary), as well as orange which serves to balance both. Note how Gauguin mixes browns and yellows into the reds and greens, again unifying the two and taming their violent tendency to dominate over other colours.
This work is more realistic than the previous, with light and shade and variation of tone suggesting depth and form. For example, Gauguin has captured the darkening of the leaves around the top of the picture, which are nearest to the viewer in the shade. This cleverly suggests that Gauguin painted the subject in the shade, as well as acting as an effective compositional device to frame the main character of the picture. Compare this with the colours in the furthest background, which all contain white pigment. This pushes them further into the background while conveying a sense of the humidity of the Tahitian air.
In terms of realism, the black line work is more disjointed and sporadic, and the shadows on the red dress are especially realistic. Opposing this, are the curious but effective areas of abstraction in the picture. The space between the nearest female and the two others is reduced to a swirl of reds, oranges, and even greys. The central green tree in the furthest background is also simplified to a mass of outlined colour with little or no discernible features. The variation in paint application and the portrayal of texture is also reduced to a minimum; the same brush work in used for the red dress, flesh tones and the fruit.
What of the content of this picture? The nearest girl looks into Gauguin’s (or the viewer’s) eyes with a penetrating glare, perhaps sly mistrust. The two to the left look on with seemingly far more innocence, their flirtation maintained through their distance from Gauguin. In the far background there is a woman with small child. One cannot help when analysing this picture to pick out the allegory of three ‘states’ of woman: The two girls symbolising girlish youthfulness, the woman and child symbolising motherhood, is the fruit the red-dress female holds a symbol for her own pregnancy?
From what we know about Gauguin’s life in Tahiti this would seem an appealing allegory. The enigmatic title for the piece translates to “Where are you going?” – as if the ‘pregnant’ woman is asking Gauguin since he could be the father. This would explain the less-than-pleased look on the woman’s face. From Gauguin’s own journals we know he kept many partners, (as the culture of Tahiti was far more relaxed than Europe) and probably inseminated even more. Even when leaving to go to Tahiti, he left his wife and some six children. It is also possible that the shack in the background is Gauguin’s own, his promiscuousness demonstrated by surrounding it with Tahitian girls.
If this is all untrue it is at least possible to call this picture a ‘farewell piece’ – a summing up, epilogue and pictorial symphony in celebration of the things he would leave behind.
‘Where Are You Going?” is a spectacular piece in Gauguin’s oeuvre. It combines a splendid use of colour, composition and line. More pertinent to this picture is Gauguin’s ability to communicate psychology, meaning and expression in the faces of his subjects and their symbolic placing within the canvas.


The third work I will analyse of Gauguin is his most significant, familiar and technically admirable. The enigmatically titled painting was meant to be a final synopsis or headstone before Gauguin attempted suicide in 1898. However, this failed and he continued painting until his death in 1903. Therefor, in the genesis of this painting we find a desire from Gauguin to excel himself in every painterly way. The evidence is concrete: he made more preliminary sketches and replicas for this painting than any other. This is not a casual work painted on a lazy Tahitian day to capture the colours and feelings around him. He has already familiarised himself with the Tahitian lifestyle and thus this painting moves to a more universal level as an expression of beyond the material, mortal life of Gauguin and into the spiritual, everlasting realm of the supernatural. This painting encapsulates more than any other Gauguin’s Romantic outlook informed by Tahitian ritual, and acts as a psychological preparation for the afterlife as an escape from his own misery and pain.
The title hints at the philosophically weighty theme of the picture. The three-tier title translates visually into thirds in the painting. But no questions are answered here, only described with images. As if Gauguin is saying “all I can do as a human is ask”, these questions would surely be answered in the afterlife. It reads from right to left. In the rightmost third (Where do we come from?) we see the baby, and three young women – symbols of origin and product from an origin, perpetually cling to ideas about the universe, religion and a ‘Maker’.
In the centre, Gauguin meditates on what we are. Here are two women, talking about destiny (or so he described them), a man looking puzzled and half-aggressive, and in the middle, a youth plucking the fruit of experience. As Gauguin had little to do with Christianity, this cannot have anything to do with the Garden of Eden; it is humanity’s innocent and natural desire to live and to search for more life. A child eats the fruit, overlooked by the remote presence of an idol – emblem of our need for the spiritual and it’s presence in Tahiti. There are women (one mysteriously curled up into a shell), and there are animals with which we share the world: a goat, a cat, and kittens. According to Tahiti lore, every animal shares the same ‘spirit’ and Gauguin portrays humans as part of and at one with the animal kingdom.
In the final section (Where are we going?), a young woman broods, and an old woman prepares to die. Her pallor and grey hair tell us so, but the message is underscored by the presence of a strange white bird. It is Gauguin’s symbol of the afterlife and the unknown, or more specifically his transportation to the afterlife in his death.
All this is set in the paradise from which Gauguin drew so much inspiration. Again, he includes all the regular features of Tahitian topography: The river that runs through the woods, the brilliant blue sea, the mountains of a neighbouring island that rise above the mist. As always this demonstrates his love of Tahiti and the deep, lush colour hightens this celebration.
A commonly noted feature is the predominance of darkness, which is less apparent in the other pictures I have analysed. This cannot be simply a realistic portrayal of dappled light in the shade; Gauguin was a symbolist. The darkness REPRESENTS the unknown, the unanswered questions, the coming of death, ignorance. As a symbolist, darkness becomes a metaphor. Here we find, once again, the fundamental Symbolist creed that colour, composition and tone acquire a symbolic demeanour.
Another general hypothesis is that the darkness of this painting expresses Gauguin’s depression. I think this painting offers great insight into the character of Gauguin, his intrinsic manner and his state at the time. Not simply in the use of colour, but what he did at the same time as painting it. Given the amount of writing that was dedicated in preparation to the painting Gauguin was a man who desperately wanted to be appreciated and understood and, though certain of his faith in Tahitian religion, this never happened. Also telling is the way in which he was creative with the truth. For example, he concocted the story that he bravely walked up mountains having taken arsenic and survived. He also wrote that he did not think of the title until he had completed the work, yet considering how enthusiastically he constructed the composition it is clear he had this concept in mind for some time.
Here is the testament of a man whose ego and ambition was compromised by his enemies, disease and other financial misfortunes. ‘Where do we come from?…’, as Gauguin’s most praise-worthy piece, is a showcase for everything Tahiti had taught him, as well as the picture that goes beyond the personal experience of one man, and onto a level that is meant to communicate philosophically to all.


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