Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, a leading post-Impressionist painter, was born on June 7, 1848 in Paris. At a young age, however, his family moved to Peru, the home of his maternal grandmother, an early feminist activist. The family moved back to France when he was seven and he had to relearn French. He satisfied his military service by joining the merchant marines. The experience obviously agreed with him because he then signed on for two years in the Navy. After the Navy, he became a stockbroker in Paris, married, and fathered five children in quick succession. He then moved to Denmark, his wife’s country. Gauguin became increasingly distant from his family’s middle-class values and absorbed in painting, and his wife asked him to leave.
Gauguin traveled to Arles, in the south of France, with his friend Vincent Van Gogh. Like his friend, he suffered from depression and made suicide attempts. It was during an argument with Gauguin that Van Gogh famously mutilated his ear. Gauguin was also associated with the Pont-Aven school of Impressionists, such as his friends Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. He became disenchanted with the Impressionists, believing that they were imitative and lacked symbolic depth. The art of Africa and Asia appealed to him. He was associated with Cloisonnism – a style typified by black outlines filled in with bold color. Gauguin dispensed with perspective and subtle variations in color. Later his style became more associated with Symbolism, in which form and color are in equal balance.
He left France for Martinique, Panama, and then Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. He embraced a bohemian way of life, to be sure, with multiple native lovers, including the prepubescent girls who were featured in some of his paintings. Ick. He had at least five more children by his mistresses. He took the side of the natives against the colonial authorities and was charged with libel. He lost the trials. He died of a morphine overdose on May 8, 1903 while he was waiting to serve his prison time. Gauguin was suffering from syphilis and in pain; it’s impossible to say whether his death was accidental or a suicide. He was only 54 years old and weakened by alcoholism and hard living.
Today’s quotation, je ferme les yeux afin de mieux voir (jshuh fairm lez juh afah duh myuh vwar), is a Gauguin quotation. It means “I close my eyes in order to see better.” After his death, many of his works were snapped up by a Russian collector and they remain in museums there, as well as other major world museums. The record price at auction for one of his paintings was almost 40 million dollars. His is credited with influencing both the art of Pablo Picasso and the writing of W. Somerset Maugham. I bet Mr. Unconventionality didn’t see lasting popularity coming his way.