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Paul Gauguin's Tahitian mistress Tehamana modeled for many of his South Seas works, including the lush Te Nave Nave Fenua (The Delightful Land), 1892. (Ohara Museum of Art)

Gauguin's Bid for Glory

Of all the images created by the artist Paul Gauguin, none was more striking than the one he crafted for himself

The South Seas provided Gauguin some of his best legend-making opportunities. Disappointed that many traditional rituals and gods had already disappeared from Tahitian culture, he simply reconstructed his own. Back in Paris, he created one of his most enigmatic sculptures: a grotesque female nude with bulging eyes, trampling a bloody wolf at her feet while grasping a smaller creature with her hands. Gauguin considered it his ceramic masterpiece, and wanted it placed on his tomb. Its title: Oviri, Tahitian for “savage.”

Gauguin’s life was interesting enough without all the mythologizing. He was born Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin on June 7, 1848, in Paris to a political journalist, Clovis Gauguin, and his wife, Aline Marie Chazal, the daughter of a prominent feminist. With revolutions sweeping Europe when Paul was barely a year old, the family sought the relative safety of Peru, where Clovis intended to start a newspaper. But he died en route, leaving Aline, Paul and Paul’s sister, Marie, to continue on to Lima, where they stayed with Aline’s uncle.

Five years later they returned to France; Gauguin was back on the high seas by the time he was 17, first in the merchant marine, then in the French Navy. “As you can see, my life has always been very restless and uneven,” he wrote in Avant et Après (Before and After), autobiographical musings that were published after his death. “In me, a great many mixtures.”

When Gauguin’s mother died, in 1867, her close friend Gustave Arosa, a financier and art collector, became his guardian. Arosa introduced his ward to Paris painters, helped him get a job as a stockbroker and arranged for him to meet Mette Gad, the Danish woman he would marry in 1873.

At the time, Gauguin was surrounded by people who wanted to be artists, including fellow stockbroker Émile Schuffenecker, who would remain a friend even after others tired of Gauguin’s antics. They attended art shows, bought French pictures and Japanese prints, and dabbled in oils. Though he was just a Sunday painter, Gauguin had a landscape accepted at the important Paris Salon of 1876. And six years later, when he lost his job in the stock market crash of 1882, Gauguin took up painting full time, even though he had a wife and four children to support. “No one gave him the idea to paint,” Mette told one of her husband’s biographers much later. “He painted because he could not do otherwise.”

To save money, the family, which would ultimately include five children, moved to Mette’s family home in Copenhagen. Gauguin described himself as “more than ever tormented by his art,” and he lasted only half a year with his in-laws, returning with son Clovis to Paris in June 1885. Clovis was put in Marie’s care; Gauguin never lived with his family again.

A quest for ever-cheaper lodgings led him to Brittany in 1886, where the artist soon wrote to his wife with characteristic bravado that he was “respected as the best painter” in Pont-Aven, “although that doesn’t put any more money in my pocket.” Artists were drawn to the village on France’s western tip for the ruggedness of its landscape, the costumed inhabitants who were willing to pose and the Celtic superstitions overlaid with Catholic rituals that pervaded daily life. “I love Brittany,” Gauguin wrote. “I find the wild and the primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground, I hear the muffled, powerful thud that I’m looking for in painting.”

Though an admirer of Claude Monet, a collector of Paul Cézanne, a student of Camille Pissarro and a friend of Edgar Degas, Gauguin had long sought to go beyond Impressionism. He wanted his art to be more intellectual, more spiritual and less reliant on quick impressions of the physical world.

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