Paul Gauguin and Savageness

Paul Gauguin, Mango Gatherers (1887)

Escape may be part of every traveler’s impetus, but Paul Gauguin elevated this urge into an idealization of savageness that fueled his art and subsequent success. Torn by dual impulses, to escape into a primitive culture but also to achieve renown in the Western art world, Gauguin first began exploring the Caribbean and later Polynesia in a search of a primitive utopia that he painted but never found.


Gauguin is better known for paintings of Tahitian women than of Caribbean subjects, yet the artist had ties to the Caribbean and South America that fostered his later desire to escape to Tahiti. Although born in Paris, Gauguin was in many ways impressed by his Peruvian ancestry and his early childhood in Lima, which he and his mother left when he was three years old. Once he made the commitment to being an artist at 35, nothing could hold him back from the wild unknown. When he became dissatisfied with his small start painting in Breton, already considered an escape from civilized Paris, he wrote to his wife Mette in 1887, “I am off to Panama to live like a savage.” His wife, and their five children, had already been shipped back to her family as Gauguin could no longer support them.

Unfortunately for Gauguin, his Panama experience was one of forced labor on the Panama Canal rather than the cushy paradise with help from relations he had optimistically expected. Gauguin eventually worked his way from there to Martinique, a French colony. He took an enthusiastic view of this “unspoiled” paradise:

For the time being we are living in a Negro shack, and it is paradise compared to the ithmus [of Panama]. Below us, the sea, fringed with coconut palms; above, fruit trees of every variety, and all 25 minutes from town. Negro men and women mill about all day long with their Creole songs and ceaseless chatter . . . Nature is at its lushest, a warm climate but with cool spells. -Letter to his wife Mette June 20 1887

Impoverished and ill after Panama, the artist was still inspired by his surroundings to begin painting. It was in Martinique he produced his first exotic landscapes and began to break away from the Impressionism of his mentor Pissarro. However the warming climate took a further toll on his health. Foreshadowing his life to come, Gauguin was repatriated in 1888, sick and penniless.

Paul Gauguin, Tropical Vegetation

Yet this short, somewhat disastrous trip paid off. The painting Tropical Vegetation earned Gauguin the beginnings of critical interest and praise when he exhibited it in Paris in 1888. Despite the troubles he had there, Gauguin had explored a style of flat blocks of color in the wild land of Martinique to Western accolades and subsequently he sought the most primitive places he could paint in as inspiration.

Savage Tendencies

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait (1889)

Gauguin sold some paintings, including Picking Mangos to Theo Van Gogh, which provided him with enough money to begin painting in Brittany, a place that represented to Gauguin something inherently pre-academic. His works became freer, bolder in color and more imaginative. In the self-portrait above, he positions himself between two recent and provoking pieces, his painting The Yellow Christ and a ceramic mug. Over the next three years, his critical reputation grew, at least among the avant garde. He remained obsessed with traveling somewhere wilder and more primitive. As he wrote to his friend Emile Bernard, “Terrible itching for the unknown makes me do things I shouldn’t.”

Gauguin was intent on leaving behind a land made “rotten” by civilization. In a letter to Bernard in 1890, he describes how “I feel I can revitalize myself out there. The West is effete at present, and even a man with the strength of Hercules can, like Anteaus, gain new vigor just by touching the ground of the Orient. A year or two later you come back robust.” But Gauguin was now planning to stay much longer than that. He wrote to Odilon Redon in September 1890,

I will get to Tahiti and I hope to finish out my life there. I believe that my art, which you love, is but a seed, and in Tahiti I hope to cultivate it for myself in its primitive and savage state.

What did Gauguin think he would find in a society, and himself, in its primitive and savage state?

Romantic Notions: the Noble Savage

Gauguin had a delightful notion of savageness. As he wrote to his friend Williamson in late 1890, “Out there at least, with winterless skies overhead and wonderfully fertile ground underfoot, Tahitians have only to lift their arms to gather their food; therefore, they never work. Whereas in Europe men and women satisfy their needs only after ceaseless toil.” In addition, he admired savages who were untouched by the false morality and the paralyzing effects of civilization.

The phrase “noble savage” expresses the concept of natural man unencumbered by civilization and divine revelation, and it became a catchphrase for 19th century Romantic Primitivism that believed that life was better, and more moral, among primitive peoples who were unspoiled by civilization. This Romantic conception insisted that civilization’s laws and customs created the evils of life. Correspondingly, the Noble Savage lived like Adam and Eve in Eden before the Fall of Man.

Gauguin embraced the ideal of the Noble Savage, and sought in savageness not only a happy and good life, but one that provided emotional and creative vitality. Gauguin wrote in Racontars de Rapin in April 1903:

Having lost all their savagery, having run out of instinct and, you might say, imagination, artists have wandered down all sorts of paths, looking for the productive elements that they themselves do not have the strength to create . . .

The strength he needed for his art was not to be found in enervating modern society, but in the pure, unfettered life of primitive people.

Life in Tahiti

Paul Gauguin, The Ford (1901)

Did Tahiti live up to his expectations of unspoiled paradise? Yes and no. Upon arriving in June 1891, he found Tahiti more civilized than he would have liked, with Christian churches and colonial offices. He moved to a more remote province and began drawing and panting in earnest. Gauguin’s marriage to Tehamana, a local girl of 13, was likely his closest connection to Tahitian culture and his purest source of inspiration. He never learned the language, and had to rely on second hand sources despite living among the Tahitians. Still Gauguin was inspired by his surroundings, and began to give his pieces Tahitian titles. Penniless again and begging to be repatriated, he left behind Tehamana in June 1893 for civilization and the ongoing search for money to support his lifestyle.

Back in Paris, Gauguin was as eager as a zealot to explain the nuances of Tahiti. He turned his studio into a wild, Polynesian-style bordello and took up with a biracial mistress who owned a monkey. This flagrant lifestyle, combined with the unusual costume he affected, made quite a stir in Paris. He wanted to return to Polynesia as soon as possible, explaining in an interview with L’Echo de Paris in March 1895:

I had once been fascinated by this idyllic island and its primitive and simple people. That is why I returned and why I am going back there again. In order to achieve something new, you have to go back to the sources, to childhood. My Eve is almost an animal. That is why she is chaste for all her nakedness. But all the Venuses in the Salon are indecent and disgracefully lewd.

Gauguin famously took and painted the string of Tahitian Eves, typically around the age of puberty. He surrounded these models with symbols and allusions to Tahitian life gleaned from books on the region, or even on other primitive cultures. Picking and choosing, Gauguin created the primitive iconography he desired. Noa Noa, a book he published on Tahitian mythology, which he copied from a French travel account and illustrated in his own style, was presented to the world as his experience during his travels. Gauguin defined savageness as it suited him in pursuit of artistic success and personal freedom.

He returned to Tahaiti in July 1895 and took a new wife and a new home in Punaauia. Here he created one of his masterpieces, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a large panel painting that features a scene of women with both biblical and more exotic religious overtones. Plagued increasingly by ill health and poverty, he attempted suicide after completing it in 1898. The paintings of these years share a concern with the eternal and spiritual qualities of Tahitian culture. Upon receiving some money from a dealer, Gauguin moved even further away, to the Marquesa Islands. Finally free of financial worries, he created a “house of pleasures” and lived with a new wife. The pleasures were short lived. His mobility was increasingly limited due to syphilis. He died of resulting complications on May 8, 1903, leaving behind pioneering work that fueled the Primitive school and made him an internationally famous painter. Ironically, the ambitious artist missed the height of the fame he had so assiduously cultivated.

Paul Gauguin, The Spirit of the Dead

Gauguin used broad fields of color, simplified line, and his own personal mythology rich with mysterious symbolism to be the first artist to achieve broad public success in the Primitive style. The raw power and simplicity he imagined in Tahiti informed renowned paintings that led to the influential art movement Primitivism. Yet the difference between Gauguin’s life among primitive people and the subject matter of his paintings illustrates the artificial construction that Gauguin’s savageness, and likewise the Primitive school, are based on. The authenticity of Gauguin’s art stems from the artist’s imagination and ideals of savagery, rather than any exposure to the primitive peoples of Martinique, Brittany, or Tahiti. Cultivating an image of himself through his life and work, Gauguin created at least one “Noble Savage”—himself.

Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.

3 responses to “Paul Gauguin and Savageness”

  1. The Dark Engine says:

    “Noble” maybe, rather than “nobel”?

  2. lethe says:

    Thanks for catching that Joseph.

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