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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