Paul Gaugin – art, sex and death in French Polynesia Avaunt reflects on the groundbreaking French painter's formative period on the remote Pacific islands of Polynesia

Having abandoned his marriage for a life of adventure and travel, Avaunt reflects on painter Paul Gauguin’s formative period spent attempting to go native in French Polynesia.


Paul Gauguin, the French stockbroker turned artist who traded Paris for Polynesia, was as much the ultimate traveller as he was the rogue modern painter. He is one of art history’s most absorbing characters, not least for the way he has been cast as both man of the world and disreputable brute.

His vivid paintings of Tahitian women are some of the most enduring images from the turn of the last century, but his tumultuous life story establishes Gauguin as the most shadowy of the post-impressionists – the unequivocal outsider.

The part-Peruvian son of a journalist, Gauguin was born in Paris in 1848 and spent several years living in Lima as a child. It wasn’t until his mid-30s that he began to pursue painting full-time, but, before falling into work as a stockbroker at 23, his two years as a merchant marine had given him a taste for travel. As his aspirations to be an artist grew, so did his dissatisfaction with middle-class life. First he abandoned his 11-year career in finance, and then he left his Danish wife and five children in Copenhagen, seeing a place for neither in his new role.

He quickly became a mentor to a handful of younger artists and his radical advice that Paul Sérusier should ignore naturalism and use paint straight from the tube in fact paved the way for modernist painting. “He made you think of a buffoon, a troubadour and a pirate all at once,” Sérusier later said. This is telling of Gauguin’s fraught relationships. He was wildly unpopular and Van Gogh famously came at him with a razor during nine weeks they spent together.

In 1891, following a trip to the Caribbean and an extended sojourn in Brittany, Gauguin left for the French colonies in the South Pacific. In his mind’s eye Tahiti was a romantic idyll, an image promoted by the writings of naval officer and novelist Pierre Loti. The dispassionate faces of the islanders he painted show that the truth was a colony in decline.

He spent the better part of 12 years painting in Polynesia, but despite attempts to “go native” always kept one eye on the Paris art world, where he continued to sell work. After retreating to the Marquesas Islands, he died in 1903 at the age of 54, suffering from an advancing case of syphilis.

From Sunday painter to rolling stone, he is a notorious example of the artist as explorer. His travels through Panama, Martinique and the South Pacific; the abandoning of his family; paintings of mysterious, dusky women and scenes of paradise lost; a succession of adolescent lovers – all of these things would later inspire W. Somerset Maugham’s 1919 novel The Moon and Sixpence.

Although little celebrated in his lifetime, last year a painting of Gauguin’s became the most expensive artwork ever sold, and his influence, however troubled, has proven considerable. A young Picasso is said to have drawn on pages of his Tahiti travelogue, Noa Noa, and Gauguin’s bold outlines and experimental palette can still be seen in the work of artists like Chris Ofili and Peter Doig.


This is an exceprt from issue 3 of Avaunt. Subscribe to Avaunt here.

Words: Alexander Hawkins

Image: Getty Images

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