Paul Gauguin, a French stockbroker-turned-artist, had a major role in the shaping of modern art. A leading Post-Impressionist known for his bold colors and stark contrasts, Gauguin was important
in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, ceramist, printmaker and writer. His bold experimentation of color led directly to the Synthetist style of modern art, where form and color are
of equal importance. Influenced by folk art and Japanese prints, Gauguin evolved toward Cloisonnism, whose bold, flat forms and dark contours set the stage for the Primitivism art movement,
characterized by exaggerated body proportions, totems, geometric design and high contrast. His work also helped shape the Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism art movements.
Gauguin had no formal art training and did not set out to be an artist. By the time he exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1876, he had been married for three years and was gainfully employed as a stockbroker. His painting was for pleasure, not profit, popularity or acclaim.
His artistic vision grew upon meeting Camille Pissarro, for whom he became a patron and an unofficial student by 1879. Pissarro invited him to join the fourth exhibition of the Impressionists, along with Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and other artists.
The stock market crash of 1882 hurt Gauguin financially and convinced him to focus on art full time, which also led to the dissolution of his marriage over the next several years. His Impressionist landscapes, still lifes and interiors were influenced by Pissarro and Cézanne, whom he knew through Pissarro. Gauguin bought several of Cézanne's paintings to study the brushwork.
In 1887, Gauguin spent six months in Martinique, where he painted 11 paintings. These works featured brightly colored, outdoor figure scenes. Some of the figures would be recycled in future works.
A major artistic shift for Gauguin came during a visit to Port Aven, Brittany, France, in 1888, where he created the groundbreaking Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. As one of Gauguin's most famous paintings, it popularized the Symbolist movement. During this period, he abandoned the brushstroke influence of Cézanne and began to use broad, matte fields of bold, non-natural color to depict Breton peasant women.
In October 1888, Gauguin left Brittany for Aries, in the south of France. There, he joined Vincent van Gogh, whom he convinced to paint from memory and imagination, rather than nature motifs. Their friendship ended abruptly when van Gogh had a mental breakdown and famously cut off part of his left ear.
Back in Paris, Gauguin held an exhibition with friends at a café owned by a man named Volpini. The Volpini exhibition included 10 zincographs printed on yellow paper. Gauguin came to associate this color with modernity and spirituality after his time with van Gogh. The Yellow Christ, which depicts Christ's crucifixion, was reduced to areas of pure color, primarily yellows and oranges, with heavy black outlines.
Although the Volpini exhibition was a commercial failure, the experience led Gauguin to seek an exotic locale that would be both inspiring and affordable. He felt Impressionism had become too imitative and lacked symbolism and depth, and he admired the symbolism and vigor of African and Asian art. His quest brought him to Tahiti in 1891. There, he painted We Hail Thee Mary which depicts a Tahitian Virgin Mary worshipped by two Tahitian women dressed in bright colors against a tropical landscape. Another master work from his first Tahitian trip was Spirit of the Dead Watching.
He returned to Paris in 1893, but received neither acclaim nor financial success. In 1895 he returned to Tahiti permanently. He was suffering from syphilis, but was able to paint his masterpiece, the allegorical Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? in 1897.
Tahiti later began to lose its appeal as Gauguin objected to Westernization and colonial corruption of the island nation. He embarked on another pilgrimage in 1901, this time to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, where he died in 1903 at the age of 54.
Gauguin's work became in vogue shortly after his death. Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin acquired many of his works; much of that collection is displayed in the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage.
Paul Gauguin was not well appreciated until after his death. Gauguin was later recognized for his experimental use of colors and synthetist style that were distinguishably different from Impressionism. His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.