“I am not a painter after nature.”

Paul Gauguin

Along with his contemporaries Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin was a pioneer of modernist art. His use of expressive colors, flat planes, and simplified, distorted forms in paintings, as well as a rough, semi-abstract aesthetic in sculptures and woodcuts, exerted a profound influence on avant-garde artists in the early 20th century, from Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to the German Expressionists.

Gauguin, who had no formal artistic training, led a peripatetic life, settling for extended periods in different parts of the world, including, most famously, Tahiti. He was born in Paris but spent his early childhood in Lima, Peru, where his mother had relatives. His attachment to Peru helped stoke a lifelong desire to travel and to self-identify as a “savage,” a term encapsulating his idealizing and derogatory view of the non-Western peoples and cultures by which he was influenced. As a young man, he worked on the stock exchange in Paris and painted in his spare time. Between 1879 and 1886 he exhibited with the Impressionists, but he subsequently aligned himself with the nascent Symbolist movement, which prioritized inner feelings and oblique evocations over the visual effects of light in nature. In 1882, after losing his job during the French stock market collapse, he pursued painting as a full-time career.

In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, which had long loomed large in his imagination as a paradise unspoiled by European social mores. There he created luminous paintings and small, totem-like wood sculptures that he described as “ultra-savage.” These works, including Hina Tefatou (The Moon and the Earth) (1893), were not so much a depiction of what he saw there as an idealized projection of what he had hoped he might find. The artist returned to France in 1893, but, disappointed with the response to his Tahitian-themed paintings, he left permanently in 1895 and made his second voyage to Tahiti. In 1901 he moved to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he died in 1903.

More than any other major artist of his generation, Gauguin drew inspiration from working across multiple mediums. In addition to painting, he was at various moments intensely engaged with ceramics, woodcarving, lithography, woodcut, monotype, and transfer drawing. In woodcuts such as Te Atua (The Gods) (1893–94), he combined the bold gouging of his carved wood sculptures with glowing, evocative color. He used oil transfer drawing—a hybrid of drawing and printmaking that he invented—to make large, highly finished compositions such as Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900). With these forays into printmaking, Gauguin capitalized on the subtle abstractions of printing to impart a mysterious, dreamlike quality to his images.

Note: Opening quote is from Goldwater, Robert, and Paul Gauguin. Paul Gauguin (New York: Abrams, 1983), 28.

Starr Figura, Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016

Wikipedia entry
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (UK: , US: , French: [øʒɛn ɑ̃ʁi pɔl ɡoɡɛ̃]; 7 June 1848 – 8 May 1903) was a French painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist, and writer, whose work has been primarily associated with the Post-Impressionist and Symbolist movements. He was also an influential practitioner of wood engraving and woodcuts as art forms. While only moderately successful during his lifetime, Gauguin has since been recognized for his experimental use of color and Synthetist style that were distinct from Impressionism. Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848, amidst the tumult of Europe's revolutionary year. In 1850, Gauguin's family settled in Peru, where he experienced a privileged childhood that left a lasting impression on him. Later, financial struggles led them back to France, where Gauguin received formal education. Initially working as a stockbroker, Gauguin started painting in his spare time, his interest in art kindled by visits to galleries and exhibitions. The financial crisis of 1882 significantly impacted his brokerage career, prompting a full-time shift to painting. Gauguin's art education was largely self-taught and informal, shaped significantly by his associations with other artists rather than academic training. His entry into the art world was facilitated by his acquaintance with Camille Pissarro, a leading Impressionist. Pissarro took on a mentor role for Gauguin, introducing him to other Impressionist artists and techniques. He exhibited with the Impressionists in the early 1880s, but soon began developing his distinct style, characterized by a bolder use of color and less traditional subject matter. His work in Brittany and Martinique showcased his inclination towards depicting native life and landscapes. By the 1890s, Gauguin's art took a significant turn during his time in Tahiti, then a French colony, where he sought a refuge from the Western civilization, driven by the colonialist tropes of exoticism prevalent at the time. During that time, he controversially married three adolescent Tahitian girls with whom he later fathered children. Gauguin's later years in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands were marked by health issues and financial struggles. His paintings from that period, characterized by vivid colors and Symbolist themes, would prove highly successful among the European viewers for their exploration of the relationships between people, nature, and the spiritual world. Gauguin's art became popular after his death, partially from the efforts of dealer Ambroise Vollard, who organized exhibitions of his work late in his career and assisted in organizing two important posthumous exhibitions in Paris. His work was influential on the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and he is well known for his relationship with Vincent and Theo van Gogh.
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Getty record
He was one of the leading French painters of the Postimpressionist period. He is noted for his imaginative subjects and expressive use of color, in attempts to capture a more primitive emotion in his works. He professed an appreciation of exotic peoples, whom he believed to be innocent of modern civilization's woes.
Artist, Author, Ceramicist, History Artist, Graphic Artist, Illustrator, Painter, Pastelist, Pastellist, Sculptor
Paul Gauguin, Eugène-Henri-Paul Gauguin, Paul Gaugin, Eugene-Henri Gauguin, Polʹ Gogen, Kao-keng, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, Gauguin, Pablo Gauguin, Eugène Henry Paul Gauguin, Paul Eugène Henri Gauguin, p. gauguin, gauguin paul, P. gaugin
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


35 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Gauguin: Metamorphoses Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 248 pages
  • Prints from Blocks: Gauguin to Now Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, pages
  • Post-Impressionism: From van Gogh to Gauguin Clothbound, pages
  • Cézanne-Gauguin-Seurat-Van Gogh Exhibition catalogue, Clothbound, pages
  • Cézanne-Gauguin-Seurat-Van Gogh Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, pages

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