3 Cool Things You Might Not Know About Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

Anxious about an impending Eurozone crisis and a tanking economy? Maybe we all should follow the lead of Paul Gauguin, who quit his job as a stockbroker in Paris after the market crashed in 1882 and became a full-time artist. Today, we’re featuring the painting he considered to be his personal masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” It’s on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a special exhibit from June 20th through September 3rd, but normally makes its home at the MFA, which acquired it in 1936 for $80,000.

1. When Gauguin began his new career, he was greatly influenced by Impressionist landscapes, such as those of Pissarro. Nevertheless, he was always interested in exploring the realms of dreams, mysteries, and symbols, which opened the door to his pioneering work as a Symbolist. Gauguin deliberately avoided specific, finite interpretations of his paintings. Speaking of “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” he said, “explanatory attributes—known symbols—would congeal the canvas into a melancholy reality, and the problem indicated would no longer be a poem.”

2. Although Gauguin was not keen on a finite interpretation of the painting, he did leave some clues in letters. The painting, his vision of earthly paradise, is meant to be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant and ending with the crouched, aged woman.  He described the figures as contemplating the questions of human existence that he inscribed in the upper left-hand corner next to his signature that give the painting its name. The blue idol figure in the background represents “the Beyond,” and the old woman accepts her impending death with resignation of the cycle of life.

3. Gauguin painted “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” in between hospitalizations for syphilis on the island of Tahiti. Gauguin’s relationship with Tahiti was a complex one that generated much artistic inspiration and was filled with both enchantment with its “primitive,” preindustrial civilization but ultimately disillusionment with its Western corruption. Gauguin first visited Tahiti in 1891 after an unsuccessful show in Paris. He returned there in 1893 after financial success continued to evade him in France, seeking out his own Arcadia, or earthly paradise. In this way, he was unique among the Symbolists in seeking to escape to an actual preindustrial society instead of to an imagined dream world.

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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Van Gogh_Starry Night

(Image source / As seen in museum / Corresponding newsletter)

The night sky bursts with energy and light over the quiet village below, an idyllic scene of harmony between humans and nature.

1. Career trajectory: Like most Northern Californians and many of the Millennial generation, van Gogh was on the elusive search for work that is meaningful and useful. "Before becoming a painter, the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) had tried his hand at preaching, teaching and art dealing. Drawn to these vocations by his desire for a life both spiritually fulfilling and socially useful, Van Gogh determined that art alone could provide access to the ideal world he sought" (Janson 912).

2. Universal harmony: The night sky is usually portrayed as being quite still. In contrast, the sky in the painting bursts with with energy and the swirls depict unceasing movement, while the village below is still. Van Gogh left "...behind the Impressionist doctrine of truth to nature in favor of restless feeling and intense color..." (MoMA NY). "Harnessing his expressionistic vocabulary, Van Gogh painted the primitive world and utopia he dreamed of: the peaceful tranquility of simple, unpretentious people, nurtured by nature and in harmony with universal forces" (Janson 916).

3. Cypress trees: "Connecting earth and sky is the flamelike cypress, a tree traditionally associated with graveyards and mourning. But death was not ominous for van Gogh. "Looking at the stars always makes me dream," he said, "Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star." " (MoMA NY). Van Gogh was deeply depressed and committed suicide within a year of this painting (Janson 916). (Tree varieties are surprisingly yet unsurprisingly significant to various cultures - for example, in medieval Japan, pines indicate longevity.)

Bonus: Don McLean and Josh Groban turned this painting into a song "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)."

  • Thanks Rachel for your feedback on the format! (adding dates on the artist and work)
  • Thanks Menno for sending an interesting article that coincidentally showcases Hollywood movies and some of the art that Art Snap has recently covered.
  • Thanks Adam for your detailed feedback on the website format! Look forward to incorporating as much of it as I can gradually.


  • Also, if you're ever at a museum/gallery or reading about art, tag your tweet with #artsnap - will be cool to see your encounters with art!
  • Am experimenting with a new send time, let me know which you prefer - Sunday evening or Monday mid-day. Keep the suggestions and requests coming, make a comment below!
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3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte"

(Image source / As seen in museum / Corresponding newsletter)

Talk about patience - it took Seurat 2 years to finish this 6.8 x 10.1 ft painting.  Applying scientific principles of his time, Seurat used an innovative method to make a vibrant and witty display of a Sunday afternoon outside of Paris.

Seurat Close Up Woman1. Monumental: Part of what makes this painting "Post-Impressionist" rather than "Impressionist" is the monumentality of the figures - instead of seeming fleeting, the structured and regal figures are grounded in a sense of presence, almost like Egyptian statues or Greek temple friezes. Closer look: Woman's figure is very tall and straight. Seurat also liked to put visual puns in his work. For example, the monkey the woman holds apparently is a play on French slang (singesse) for "woman of the night."
Seurat Detail2. Dots per inch: Although some scientific principles he used may no longer hold, Seurat applied color theory to put totally different colors side by side, intending to intensify the colors and have your eyes combine them to perceive an entirely different color. Closer look: Detail from Seurat's other painting La Parade, not exactly "dots" but short, flat brush strokes. The darkest parts of his hair is composed of shades as varied as light pink, light blue, and dark green.
3. Bueller? In the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Bueller goes to the Art Institute of Chicago and ponders over Seurat's painting.

This week's issue was inspired by a reader request. Keep the feedback coming!

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Mother's Day Edition - 3 Cool Things (You Might Not Know) About Monet's Water Lilies

Give the Moms in your life some flowers for Mother's Day...

monet water lilies

(Image source / As seen in museumCorresponding newsletter)

What would you do with the last 25 years of your life? Monet spent those years painting numerous landscapes. These blurry yet vibrant water lilies contributed to revolutionizing the depiction of space.

1. Slightly out of focus: Like other Impressionist paintings, Monet's water lilies have a somewhat unfinished look, brush strokes that seem "in the moment." Impressionists painted what they saw (effects of light and color) instead of what they knew to be there (compare to Da Vinci's Mona Lisa). Monet's cataracts and retinal disease blurred his vision - Stanford Med researchers modeled the effects of this on his paintings. See on the left the how cataract vision has a blurriness similar to that in the paintings.

2. Broadening your horizons: The image on the left has a distinct horizon line, an eye-level line that separates the sky from the land. Monet's painting above doesn't have a horizon. The painting actually skips to the surface of the pond, which reflects the sky and is the setting for the water lilies. Although this doesn't happen in all of Monet's paintings, this seemingly subtle change was pretty revolutionary in changing the way artists depicted space. Old people can indeed be innovative.

Thomas Crown Affair3. Irresistable: One of the paintings stolen in "The Thomas Crown Affair" was a Monet. The title of the movie "Vanilla Sky" comes from the clouds of one of Monet's paintings.

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All images, videos, and articles are linked to their respective sources. Elements of this post were also drawn from the following: