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Art and Images in Psychiatry
Nov 2011

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(11):1090. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.143

Paul and his ferocious egotism surpass all human comprehension and what irritates me most is that he considers himself a“martyr to art.”—Enough—let him flee. . . . —Mette Gauguin toÉmile Schuffenecker, January 31 [?], 18961(p268)

I worked all day and night that whole month with an incredible fever. . . . I shall never do anything better . . . my vision was so clear that all haste of execution vanishes and life surges up. It doesn't stink of models, of technique, or pretended rules. . . . —Paul Gauguin to Daniel de Monfreid, February 18982(p168)

In 1891, after the failure of the Studio of the South,3 Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) set off for Tahiti, seeking a simpler life. Finding its capital thoroughly colonized by the French, he settled in the countryside and took a vahine (Tahitian wife). The 13-year-old girl, Tehura, had reached the local age of sexual consent, and her parents had given their permission.2 Two years later in 1893, sorely in need of financial support, Gauguin returned to France with high hopes of a triumphant return to the Paris art world. An exhibit of his Tahitian paintings was widely advertised. To his surprise, his art did not sell.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), French. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898. Oil on canvas, 139.1 × 374.6 cm (54¾ × 147½ in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund. Photograph© 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), French. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-1898. Oil on canvas, 139.1 × 374.6 cm (54¾ × 147½ in). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund. Photograph© 2011 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Paris, Gauguin spent his early childhood in Peru but returned to France for his schooling. In 1871, he settled down to become a successful stockbroker. Two years later, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad, and over the ensuing 10 years had 5 children with her. Concurrently he cultivated his interest in painting. Although his wife considered her husband to be a“Sunday painter,” his art became his consuming interest.

Camille Pissarro tutored Gauguin in painting and introduced him to other artists. In 1876 he exhibited in the Salon and later participated in the impressionist exhibitions in 1880, 1881, 1882, and 1886. When his career as a stockbroker ended with the banking crash of 1882, Gauguin, over his wife's objections, decided to support himself and his family with the sale of his artwork. But he was not successful, and in 1884, Gauguin followed his wife to Copenhagen to begin a new but ultimately unsuccessful career as a salesman.4 Mette gave French lessons to trainee diplomats to help support the family. The following year, Gauguin was forced to return to Paris. His business was unsuccessful, and his bohemian ways offended his wife’s family. Yet he kept in contact with Mette and the children. The last straw for Mette was the failure of his 1893 Tahitian exhibit. It proved to her he had no talent; she gave him an ultimatum to give up his art, but he would not (epigraph).2

In July 1895, Gauguin boarded the steamer L’Australien in Marseilles, France, to begin his second and final sojourn to Tahiti. He arrived in Papeete, its capital city, on September 9. By November he had settled in the nearby coastal village of Punaauia with his second 13-year-old Tahitian vahine, Pahura.2 Following recovery from several illnesses (he contracted syphilis from a Paris prostitute in 1895), he began to paint again in earnest. Convinced of his talent, in 1897 he wrote from Tahiti to a friend that a time would come when“people will think I am myth.” That same year, when he grieved the death of his favorite daughter in Copenhagen,4 he engaged his personal myth to complete his“masterpiece and the summation of his ideas,” Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (cover). Gauguin first mentioned the painting in a February 1898 letter to Daniel de Monfreid (epigraph). He begins his letter with a dramatic description of his recent failed suicide attempt:

I went into the mountains where my body would have been devoured by the ants. I had no revolver, but I had arsenic, which I had saved up while I was so ill with eczema. Whether the dose was too strong, or whether the vomiting countered the action of the poison I don't know: but after a terrible night I returned home. But before I died I wished to paint a large canvas I had in mind. . . . 5(p135)

Gauguin insists that“before death,”5 he put all his energy and passion into this painting. He describes it as like a fresco, spoiled with age, of an inhabited magical landscape filled with children, old people, animals, allegorical figures, and an idol:“a philosophical work on a theme comparable to a gospel.”5(p138) At the right is a sleeping child with 3 crouching women (where do we come from?); 2 figures dressed in purple, resembling monastics, confide their deepest thoughts; and an enormous figure“raises his arms in astonishment upon these two, who dare to think of their destiny” (what are we?). There is a central figure picking fruit, 2 cats before a child, and a white goat. A blue idol (the goddess Hina),2 arms mystically raised, is indicative of the beyond (where are we going?). Finally, an old woman,“who is nearing death, appears to accept everything, to resign herself to her thoughts. She completes the story!”5(p137,138) At her feet, a white bird holds a lizard in its claws. For Gauguin, the lizard represents the futility of words. Facing death, there is nothing more to say.

Where Do We Come From? and 8 other related paintings were shipped to Paris and exhibited in November 1898. Overall the exhibit was a critical but not a financial success. One critic found Where Do We Come From? disconnected and obscure. Another asked: without the title, how would one know how to understand it? Gauguin viewed it as contemplative, a musical poem in color. He wrote:“Here near my hut, in total silence, I dream of violent harmonies amid the natural perfumes that intoxicate me. . . . I breathe in the present the aroma of the joy of earlier times. . . . ”5(p141) Thus, Gauguin sought to sustain his legend, hoping it would enhance the value of anything he produced. Indeed his innovative use of color and line creates a sense of dissonance that was built on by later modern artists. Provocative, narcissistic, and endlessly controversial, Gauguin continues to capture the modern imagination while his critics continually seek to separate his genius from“his posturing.”6(p84)

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