Arts Everyday Living: Happy Birthday Gauguin–Discovering the Three Faces of Gauguin




Tomorrow, June 7th, will be French icon Paul Gauguin’s 176th birthday!  Like his friend Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin created numerous self portraits throughout his career. Varying in content and  approach: sometimes traditional, Gauguin sitting before his easel with brushes in hand, or placing himself  before a just completed work of art,  or offering us a close-up view as in Self Portrait: Dedicated to Carriere* below. Here Gauguin appears calm, even amiable, neatly attired in what looks like a sweater, possibly from Brittany, where he spent most of 1888 and 1889 (two likely dates when the self portrait was painted).

Title: Self Portrait, Dedicated to Carriere, 1888 or 1889


Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait Dedicated to Carriere, 1888 or 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


However, this second Self Portrait is probably the most unusual of Gauguin’s 40 portrayals of himself. A  personal revelation and symbolic tour de force where the artist has envisioned himself as a combination of haloed saint and outlier, holding the spiraling snake that tempted Adam. While just above him hang the legendary apples, eternal fruit of knowledge.  The colors bold, particularly the red and yellow in the background, once part of the wall of an inn in Brittany, which Gauguin and his artistic colleagues decorated with permission of their landlady (who would someday dismantle the work and sell it).

Self Portrait, 1889


Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait, 1889, oil on wood, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Gauguin may have produced an even stranger self portrait in Arlesiennes (Mistral), done in 1888 while Gauguin was staying with Van Gogh in Arles. On the surface, the subjects are local women walking through the park across the street from Vincent’s townhouse. The two in the foreground bundled up against the brisk air of late autumn, next to them a  pair of  cone-like forms  already in place to protect the now unseen trees from the coming winter.

Yet, the other elements  in Arlesiennes can be left to our imagination. For instance, is that a multi-colored fountain in the right background? More an apparition or fantasy than reality? And what about the bench that seems to be sliding downward on the opposite side of the canvas, unattached to gravity? Then, finally, the massive rock or shrub that confronts us, nearly protruding out of the picture. Can you see the face emerging from within–the two eyes, the nose, and perhaps a mustache just below? Is it Paul Gauguin again, camouflaged like an ancient deity, predating the advent of man?

Arlesiennes (Mistral), 1888


Paul Gauguin, Arlesiennes (Mistral), 1888, oil on jute canvas, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois

*Eugene Carriere (1849-1906) was the French Symbolist artist to whom Gauguin gave the portrait.





In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

CCO Public Domain Designation

The Art Institute of Chicago does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the Art Institute of Chicago participated in any projects utilizing the said image.




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