Born in Paris, Gauguin's family had Peruvian heritage on his mother's side and it was their move back here which sadly led to the passing of Paul's father. Lima was the earliest home for this young boy, where he would start to take in influences from early primitive cultures. He instinctively held a different viewpoint to many of the colonials who continued to live in the capital at that time. Traditional clothing and art continued to interest a young Gauguin and it was also soon that his family's socialist values would start to be passed onto this budding artist. In some ways, there are similarities to Frida Kahlo who also would embrace her traditional culture. The family would then return to France, where Paul would learn French alongside his existing Peruvian Spanish. Having attended various schools he would join the merchant marine and French navy, where he completed his national service.
Early Career in France
Gauguin took on several transformations before arriving as an artist, firstly as a successful stockbroker, then businessman. Whilst earning good money as a stockbroker, Gauguin also supplemented his income as an art dealer. This helped him learn about the industry and he was already painting fairly frequently but treated it as a hobby at this stage. It was only when both of the roles in which he had generated a strong income would both fall away in close succession due to the wider economic problems found in France, that he would then decide to pursue a career as an artist fulltime. This must have been a difficult decision at this time, to turn one's back on a more accepted occupation, but this passion probably lied most in his art. It was not an easy journey to become a professional artist, though, and he had to do other jobs on his path towards it. He settled down with a Danish woman, and they eventually uprooted to Denmark with their five children but the marriage was not to last and he returned to France.
Having returned to France, it was in around 1885-1886 that Gauguin would really attempt to get his career off the ground, whilst carrying out menial jobs on the side in order to cover his monthly outgoings. The one son who came back with him from Denmark was placed in a boarding school which was paid for by the artist's sister and he was now free to concentrate on his new life as an artist. Having already worked in a wide variety of jobs, there was no guarantee of success for him, but his passion meant he simply had to try to make this new direction a success and that he would have regretted never giving it a go. It was 1886 in which Gauguin started the momentum of his artistic career, presenting several paintings in an Impressionist exhibition, which included a number of pieces from several years before. He would also start to work with pastels, perhaps influenced by others who also exhibited within the same exhibition, such as Monet and Seurat.
Time in Martinique
Paul headed to Martinique as a way of coping with his unstable mind before then sailing to French Polynesia soon afterwards. He spent around six months on this island, producing a number of paintings whilst he was here and then carrying over some of the themes from his time here into later paintings after he had left. He spent time with a fellow artist here and enjoyed the entire experience, then deciding upon his next destination that would be Tahiti and this desination arrived three years later. By this point it was becoming clear that his passion for life lied elsewhere from Europe and that he would use the benefits of this region to fund his desire to live elsewhere in the world, studying and learning about other cultures as he went. It was very rare for an established artist to travel as widely as this in the late 19th and early 20th century but his boldness would become perhaps the unique aspect of his work.
Return to France
Gauguin would head off to Tahiti for the first of many visits over the rest of his life. He arrived in 1890 and was immediately struck by the beauty of this region as well as the inspiring local art scene which immediately pushed his work into new directions. He returned to France in 1893 but the region had left a significant impact in his mind that would never really soften, even when living so far away back in Europe. He attempted to use the French art market to drive some momentum into his career but some of his connections decided against selling his work after a period of time and also those in charge of exhibitions in Paris did not really appreciate either his paintings or his sculptures. Although other artists attempted to promote his work, he appeared to be reaching a dead end in terms of his career, or a glass ceiling at best. By 1895 he decided to return to Tahiti and managed to get together enough finance to make the journey, ultimately never returning to Europe after this point.
Settled in Tahiti
He was now totally sick of western society and in need of a new direction. His travels would also take in Tahiti and Hiva Oa Island and he would use these exotic locations as inspiration for his work. Gauguin produced a significant amount of work during his time in these islands but he was eventually to pass away in 1903 after contracting syphilis which was exacerbated by his heavy drinking. He had moved to Tahiti in 1895 with the intention of remaining within this region permanently. He had finally had enough of western society, in part influenced by his growing understanding of other cultures, as well as in how they were taking advantage of the poorer regions of the world. He clearly had the soul of an abolitionist and felt that this area could bring out the best in his artistic influences as well. Gauguin set up his own studio in Papeete and would work there fairly comfortably for a number of years.
As a French colony, the artist had a good balance between the comforts of home and the purer society of local people, though the two would clash frequently. The artist held several connections within Paris which enabled him to sell work on in Europe without too many issues, though a lack of local material did disrupt his work in other mediums, such as sculpture. He would settle with a local woman and have several children with her, but their cultural differences did cause problems throughout their relationship. Around six years after arriving in Tahiti, the artist would relocate to the Marquesas Islands, a region that had inspired him ever since he came across some of its local sculpture by chance. Sadly, Gauguin would sucumb to disease just two years later and his incredible life was cut short, leaving behind an oeuvre which boasts many hundreds of paintings, ceramics and drawings.
Death and Legacy
Paul Gauguin rose to become one of the most important French artists in history, leaving behind an oeuvre that was both unique and also highly influential. His construction of Primitivism brought new ideas into the European art scene and encouraged the use of exotic influences within existing mainstream approaches. We do know that Pablo Picasso started following his career in the very early 20th century and Gauguin's use of primitive art left behind a traceable influence on the Spaniard which directly led to artworks such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907 as well as many other elements of the Cubist movement. There were also other mediums in which the Frenchman was involved, such as stoneware, that was introduced to Picasso by some of his colleagues and this encouraged him to try out mediums in which he had not worked before. This level of influence would continue into the careers of many other European artists who then took Picasso's contributions into their own creative world and so the path of influence continued.