Painting of the Day

5 Dec


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Oil on canvas, 1897-1898. Currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Notes from

In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes …the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents “the Beyond.” The old woman at the far left, “close to death,” accepts her fate with resignation. 

Notes from

This is Paul Gaugin’s most famous painting, and he considered it his masterpiece, and the culmination of his thoughts. In Tahiti, as he was painting his masterpiece, Gauguin declared that he would commit suicide upon its completion. Although this was something he had previously attempted, this was not the case, as the artist died of syphilis in 1903. The painting was meant to be read from right to left, with the three main figures in the painting representing the three questions of the title. The figures are arranged from the beginning stages of life, from young figures with a child, to the middle aged figure in the middle, to the elder figure on the left of the painting. The idol in the background, situated behind the elder figure, represents the “Beyond.”

Notes from the NYU Arts, Literature, and Medicine online database (

A variety of figures, all of them Tahitian, sprawl across the wide frame of the painting, each engaged in a particular and significant act. In the center of the image, a man wearing a simple loincloth picks an apple from the top edge of the image. To his right, a nude person examines his or her underarm, two clothed women in the background walk together with their arms around one another, three women sit together around a babe, and a dog looks inward from the exterior of the right edge.

On the left of the apple-picking man, two white kittens play with one another next to a clothed young girl who eats an apple. Behind her lies a goat. In the far background stands a blue religious statue, to the right of which stands a lone fully clothed woman. At the far left of the painting, a dark-skinned unclothed old woman sits with her head in her hands, next to a seated, nubile young woman with firm, full, bare breasts. A white bird sits to their immediate left.

Painted in 1897 and 1898, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” addresses Paul Gauguin’s struggle with the meaning of existence. In 1891, Gauguin emigrated to Tahiti in search of a society more unspoiled than his native France. This piece, part of a series of introspective paintings inspired by his new country, was considered by Gauguin “to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas” (see Boston Museum of Fine Arts web site).

The piece should be viewed as a text from right to left–a suggestion imparted by the artist’s own letters–with the various figures representative of questions relating to human existence. In this light, the babe at the far right signifies newborn life. The figure of questionable sex whose back is turned to the viewer and who appears to inspect his or her underarm could be understood as the beginning of an individual’s realization of gender. The apple-picking male and the girl to his left who sits eating an apple reenact the fable of Adam and Eve and the quest for knowledge.

The old lady at the far left of the frame sits on the verge of death, unclothed as a parallel perhaps to the babe on the painting’s far right. As one examines the painting, the question that make up the artwork’s title-“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”–invites the viewer to contemplate the meaning of life with regard to the symbols Gauguin has left for us.

My comments:

This painting recently appeared in the PMA’s summer 2012 exhibition “Visions of Arcadia,” where the curators of that exhibition claimed that Gauguin’s painting embodied “his vision of Arcadia.” Seeing this painting outside of the exhibition and without any sort of theme attached to it, to call the painting a personal vision of Arcadia seems even more spurious a claim than it appeared to me when I reviewed the exhibit for the Phoenix (see my article under my Arts columns for the Phoenix page). The painting, from a formal consideration, is gorgeous. The colors compose a beautiful, lush harmony in relation to each other. The figure who is standing in the center right, who appears to be picking fruit, divides the painting formally, but perhaps also thematically–between the golden years of life, when we are all full of energy and have achieved the height of our professional careers, and the ending years of life when our bodies start to age, we lose our strength, we begin to lose loved ones due to age, and we approach death ourselves, and we have to face that uncomfortable, perhaps terrifying question of whether we have made our lives worth living, whether we have made a difference in life and have used the talents God gave us for altruistic purposes. 

In my view, Gauguin doesn’t have a vision of Arcadia here, not even an expression of how Arcadia has been lost on earth or something to that effect as the PMA exhibition posited. I argue that Gauguin has absolutely no vision, no answer here at all. Instead, I believe that Gauguin, although an old man at this point in his life with a lifetime of experience, only has questions and deep uncertainty about life itself and the story and worth of his life. He made several drastic changes in his life, changing from banker to painter, moving around Paris and eventually to Tahiti, changing his subject in his paintings and philosophical views on what constitutes beauty drastically (first it was the pious Breton Christians  then it was the exotic Tahiti women), and leaving his wife and children to develop a love affair with a very young Tahitian girl. Although he is a fantastic painter and seems to have found his passion in that endeavor, it appears to me that he still was not completely satisfied with his life, and there was something he was lacking, whether it be understanding of humanity and life or something more concrete. That’s why his painting is titled only with questions instead of a certain expression. Even though he paints the stages of life, he is still not sure if he even depicts that correctly. He’s not sure when life should end and begin (he attempted to kill himself, failed, then died of syphilis), he’s not sure of his own identity (is he a French banker, or a Tahitian painter?), and he doesn’t know what to do now, whether he should try to kill himself again or try to avoid death by syphilis or simply let syphilis overtake him. Gauguin managed to paint an absolute masterpiece at the end of his life, the greatest work he ever did in my opinion, yet he is still lost and without direction. 

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara December 6, 2012 at 12:52 am #

    IT is interesting that the painting reads right to left, as if it is hebrew…. Gauguin wasnt Jewish , was he?
    If not, why right to left? i also think there are many religious references in the painting. This makes me also consider that as people are questioning the meaning of life, they move from a hedonistic self absorbed existance to something far more profound. they even may move to an unconscience refernce to early religious training or learning. in gauguin’s case, he really was living a lie for most of his life as i recall. he built up a myth about who he was and then had to choose between letting down the public by goign against the myth and returning to his family life, or satisfying the public image and staying true to his myth. in a more contemporary way, how does Lady GAGA grow old and not stay true to her public persona? Its an interesting line of thinking , public vs private. so always be true to yourself.

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