At Large  January 19, 2022  Ivy Pratt

Why People Hate Paul Gauguin

Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Gauguin, Femmes de Tahiti (Tahitian Women on the Beach), 1891. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Many modern audiences, upon learning about the intricacies of Paul Gauguin’s life, adopt a distaste for him as a person. Even so, between bouts of deplorable behavior, Gauguin created art that many experts consider important to the art-historical timeline.

Despite this, the artist’s use of contrasting shapes, bold colors, and exaggerated body proportions certainly changed the shape and direction of a huge portion of art history. Gaugin also proved to be deeply influential for artists like Bonnard and Matisse, as can be seen in works such as the latter's Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-6).

Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Gauguin, D'où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous, où allons-nous? (Where do we come from? What are we, where are we going?), 1897–1898. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is something that the French artist would be happy—though likely unsurprised—to know. Gauguin dedicated a great deal of his time endeavoring to shape his legacy and project the persona of an artistic genius.

For example, in letters to friends, he claimed more than once to have created specific masterworks without preparatory sketches. He made such a claim about the painting Where do we come from? What are we, where are we going? (1897–8) despite the fact that an early sketch for the artwork remains extant to this day.

Sotheby’s.

Paul Gauguin, Femme caraïbe, 1889. Sold $4,220,000.

Gauguin’s body of work also contributed to the eventual Primitivism art movement. This is easy to spot in much of Picasso’s art—see, for instance, Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Still, one can not forget that neither Gauguin nor any other members of or precursors to Primitivism is responsible for inventing the aesthetic.

At most, these artists can be credited with observing these stylistic choices in non-Western art and applying them to Western paintings, often with little to no mention of credit to said cultures. And this is where we come face to face with one of the biggest issues modern audiences and scholars have with Gauguin and, perhaps more importantly, the larger problems that he and his work represent.

GRI Digital Collections.

Gauguin would have seen images like this 1870 photo by Sophie Hoare at the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

Many know that Gauguin spent a great deal of time in Tahiti, a move he was inspired to make after encountering an exhibit on the newly acquired French colony at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. In this author’s opinion, too few people know that Gauguin abandoned his wife and children to make his tropical escape and that, as a middle-aged man, he had numerous sexual relationships with indigenous girls under the age of fifteen. Gauguin fathered children with at least three different girls between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. In each case, Gauguin abandoned the girls and his children.

Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Gauguin, Annah the Javanese or The Child-woman Judith Is Not Yet Breached, 1893 or 1894. Oil on canvas.

As Meredith Mendelsohn wrote in 2017, “while there are plenty of white, male artists whose troubling lifestyles can be understood somewhat separately from their art, the difficulty with Gauguin is that his behavior is laid bare on his canvases.” His fixation on the young women of Tahiti is perhaps the most visceral embodiment of this observation, as sexual depictions of these girls populate an overwhelming majority of his most noteworthy artworks.

While Gauguin made important contributions to art history, that does not change the fact that he often behaved deplorably, that he unabashedly captured evidence of his behavior in his artwork, and that—until recently—his work has been exhibited and praised with little to no acknowledgment of his sins.

About the Author

Ivy Pratt

Ivy Pratt is a regular contributor to Art & Object.

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