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Paul Gauguin and the places which inspired his art, from Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu to the Marquesas Islands.


Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848, and died at Atuona in the Marquesas Islands on 8th May 1903. This famous painter was at first an Impressionist, but although coming from this movement he reacted against it by moving on in his work to use large uniform areas of colour and a more abstract drawing style. He was striving for a simplification of shape, eliminating details in order to retain only the essential form, a simplification achieved through the use of bold outlines and flat colour. His paintings abound in warm colours and soft shapes, placing the same importance on the natural element as on the figurative. He also wanted, as a symbolist, to confer a spiritual meaning onto his paintings. As his creativity began to burgeon, he spent some time in Brittany in 1886 with the young Emile Bernard, a cultured young man, only 18 years old, whereas Paul Gauguin was 38. It was at this time that, along with a few others, he founded what would later be known as the Pont-Aven School, and Synthetism was born. 



                         Paul Gauguin autoportrait
                         Photo by Everett-Art / Shutterstock.com



Paul Gauguin was also a friend of Van Gogh, whom he met in Arles on 23rd October 1888. Then he left for Polynesia in 1891. He stayed in Tahiti, and on Hiva-Oa. Without doubt he was the painter who most influenced the groups of artists known as ‘nabis’ and ‘fauvists’.

Although born in Paris to a middle-class French family, Paul Gauguin’s origins on his mother’s side were in Peru, his mother being descended from the Hispano-Peruvian nobility. He lived in Lima, with an uncle, for the first few years of his life (1849-1854). His father died on this trip, and he spent his childhood in exile, which perhaps led to his attraction to long journeys and his taste for the exotic.

On 17th December 1865, aged 17 and with no experience, he boarded the Luzitano, a three-mast sailing ship heading for Rio de Janeiro. After that he travelled on to Chile and Valparaiso, and by then was serving as second lieutenant. At Port Famine on the Strait of Magellan, Paul visited his father's grave, before going to Panama, then on to the Polynesian islands, and India. There, in 1867, he learned of the death of his mother.

In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mett Gad, and started a family. They had five children, four boys and a girl. As the family’s breadwinner, he worked as a stockbroker and the Gauguin family led a comfortable life in Paris at that time.

Painting had its place in his life, but only as a hobby. Although Gauguin rubbed shoulders with painters, he himself was still only an artist in his spare time, albeit a very talented one. He was also a great collector, especially works by Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Sisley, Cézanne, Manet, and Renoir. So it was fairly late in his life, at age 38, that Gauguin dedicated himself to painting. Influenced by the Impressionists, and particularly by Pissarro who taught him to paint, he made the decision at that time to dedicate himself fully to his art, which coincided with the disappointment of the stock market crash of 1882.

His financial situation then deteriorated rapidly, and indeed it was financial reasons which first brought him to Pont-Aven in 1886, leaving his wife and his five children behind in Denmark. Arriving in southern Brittany on the advice of Jobbe-Duval, he found beautiful scenery, a quality of light that inspired him, and inexpensive guest houses which welcomed artists. From 1886 to 1894, Paul Gauguin stayed several times in Pont-Aven and in Le Pouldu, a small seaside resort in the commune of Clohars-Carnoët.

It was in that same year, in 1886, that symbolism was born there, a new artistic tendency which set itself apart from impressionism and objective painting, to focus on the subject’s own character, symbolised by essential features. That year, Paul Gauguin made the acquaintance of Charles Laval and a deep friendship grew between them. In 1887 they set off together for Panama and Martinique.

Back in Pont-Aven in 1888, his second encounter with Emile Bernard was decisive in his work, and the two artists learnt a lot from each other. Paul Gauguin had maturity and Emile Bernard technique, each complementing the other wonderfully, developing their talent. It was during this time in Pont-Aven that Paul Gauguin renounced Impressionism and began to build on Symbolism to create a new pictorial theory called Synthetism.




Paul Gauguin toile bretonne
Photo by Everett-Art / Shutterstock.com


It resonated with the spirit of the times in Pont-Aven, the expression of an ideal shared by a group of painters symbolising the complementarity between the artists. Here, each artist brought his own vision of this artistic current and found his place, each enriching himself with the ideas of the rest of the group who would later become known as the Pont-Aven School. At this time Paul Gauguin was staying at the famous boarding house ‘Le Gloanec’, a meeting place for all the artists in the town, which at the time had about 1,500 inhabitants. It was here that Emile and Paul met. The other famous painters of this school were Paul Sérusier, Maxime Maufra, Paul-Emile Colin and Charles Filiger, to name but a few.



Paul Gauguin toile bretonne
Photo by Everett-Art / Shutterstock.com



Before 1880, Pont-Aven has been discovered by foreign artists who came to stay there for the summer, Americans including Robert Wylie but also English and Polish artists. Art suppliers and galleries began to open up, with the blessing of the town’s leaders who encouraged this movement, as well as inns where artists could eat well inexpensively and even offer their paintings in payment!

On 23rd October 1888, Paul Gauguin went to Arles to see his friend Vincent van Gogh, who initially rallied and enjoyed some better health thanks to the visit. However, there was to be a confrontation of ideas and working methods, culminating in a day of madness, 23rd December, when Van Gogh threatened Paul with a razor, before partially mutilating his own right ear…

After a big exhibition in Paris at the Volpini café in 1889, Paul Gauguin returned to Brittany, but quickly left the Gloanec boarding house in Pont-Aven to go and live with his friends, about 20 kilometres to the south at Le Pouldu, Clohars-Carnoët. He lodged for the summer at an inn owned by Marie Henry, which at that time was called ‘La Buvette de la Plage’.



Le Pouldu
Photo by Philippe Salin



You can visit it today, it is a small museum set up in the house next door to the original building, a full reconstruction with period furniture. On the ground floor are the kitchen, the bar and the dining room, where you can see reproductions of the original works which were painted next door. Upstairs, Gauguin’s bedroom is on the courtyard side, as are the bedrooms of Marie Henry and Meyer de Haan, and the bathroom, whilst Paul Sérusier’s room is next to the street.

The relationship between Paul Gauguin and Marie Henry, a beautiful woman, was conflicting and passionate. She was to keep 25 of the artist’s canvasses in return for an accommodation bill of 300 francs, and Gauguin later initiated legal proceedings in order to try to recover them. He was also jealous of his friend Meyer de Haan, who eventually became her lover.

And it was in April 1891 that Gauguin left Le Pouldu and Brittany, for Tahiti... This was made possible by a public sale of his works and the purchase by Degas of his famous painting ‘La Belle Angèle’. He was also commissioned by the government to conduct a study of the customs and landscapes of these distant lands ... these islands which had been discovered in 1767, were first a protectorate then a French colony in 1880, and were so well described by Bougainville then by Pierre Loti. Paul Gauguin was always looking for “somewhere else”, and asserted a wish to flee civilisation and France, in search of new experiences, and with a desire to find the primitive Eden which appealed to him so much.



                          Tahitiennes, Paul Gauguin   
                          Photo by Everett-Art / Shutterstock.com



The ideas he had developed in Pont-Aven allowed him now to find his true painting style. And the strength which he had garnered from his group of friends allowed him to continue his work alone. He had his own driving force and no longer needed the energy of other artists to evolve, and finally realise his potential. It was also something of a regression back to his childhood in Peru, to his inner quest, to an untamed part of himself. And so it was that he painted Polynesia like some garden of Eden which he had rediscovered. He painted it not so much as it really is but how he saw it in his mind; not a colony but an idyllic place.



Tahitiennes, Paul Gauguin
Photo by Everett-Art / Shutterstock.com


In 1894, Paul Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven one last time, for the season. It had become a unique place in Europe, a place where a hundred or so painters have gathered every summer since.




Les îles Marquises
Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock.com


Les îles Marquises
Photo by Umornos / Shutterstock.com


In 1895, Gauguin went to Polynesia for the second time, and it was his final farewell to civilisation for he was to end his life there in the Marquesas Islands. He moved to Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa, a remote place where Maori traditions were becoming mixed in with Catholicism introduced by a few missionaries, but otherwise far removed from any other European influence.



Les îles Marquises, Hiva-Oa
Photo by Umornos / Shutterstock.com



Tombe de Paul Gauguin
Photo by Annalucia / Shutterstock.com


Paul Gauguin acquired a piece of land from the Catholic mission and he built his ‘Maison du Jouir’ in the heart of the little village. This is what he had been looking for, to withdraw from European civilisation, and to live and to die a free man.


Philippe.