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Paul Gauguin was born in France the son of a French journalist and a Peruvian mother. He spent his formative years with his family in Peru, joined the French Navy, and in 1872, began a successful career as a stockbroker in Paris. How did this stockbroker with an impeccable bourgeois existence become the romantic symbol of modern art and the personification of the artist as rebel against society?

Gauguin saw the First Impressionist Exhibition, which overwhelmed him and confirmed his desire to be a painter. He retired from banking in the mid-1880's, and began painting every day, moving out of Paris to Rouen, then Denmark, Martinique and Panama, and then settling for a while in the Brittany town of Pont Aven. There he joined the Nabis Group, artists seeking a simpler spiritual life that rejected modern industrialization. Working alongside Emile Bernard and Paul Sérusier, Gauguin dropped his Impressionist palette in favor of intense flat areas of color, and he pursued subjects within the romantic tradition, namely the exotic, the otherworldly and the mystical. He went on to Arles to try to establish an artist's colony with Van Gogh, an idealistic brotherhood.

In 1891, Gauguin sailed for the South Seas to escape European civilization as he defined it. Except for a visit to France from 1893-1995, he remained in the tropics for the rest of his life, first in Tahiti and then in the Marquesas Islands. The essential characteristics of his style changed little in the South Seas, retaining the expressive color and the two dimensional forms developed in Pont Aven. However, his works became more powerful, larger and symbolic in subject. He embraced the native religion of the people who he thought were living in an earthly paradise surrounded by their gods and spirits. It was this combination or synthesis of the exotic and the traditional that became important, for he did not change Western culture but rather enhanced it. He died at his home in Atuana in Marquesas in 1903.