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

Paul Gauguin

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

Paul Gauguin
  • Original Title: D'ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous
  • Date: 1897 - 1898; Punaauia, French Polynesia  
  • Style: Post-Impressionism
  • Period: 2nd Tahiti period
  • Genre: allegorical painting
  • Media: oil, canvas
  • Dimensions: 139.1 x 374.6 cm
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The monumental painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98) was created in Tahiti during a time of the artist's great personal crisis. Struggling to find recognition and success in Paris, Gauguin decided to move permanently to Tahiti in 1895. There he continued to struggle: plagued by illness and mounting debt, his mental health rapidly deteriorated. Around the same time, he learned that his beloved daughter Aline died of pneumonia. At this low point, he summoned his strength to paint Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a masterpiece that was a summation of his artistic ideas. He wrote: “I have put all my energy into it one more time before I die, so painful a passion in such dreadful circumstances, so clear and accurate a vision, that there is no trace of precociousness and life blossoms forth from it”.

The painting, which should be viewed from right to left, represents the spectrum of human activity throughout one’s life, from birth to death. The thread of the composition corresponds with the questions posed in the title of the painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? The boundaries of the scene are marked by the newborn child lying in the grass on the right, and the haggard old woman, who glumly reflects on the past. Between these two, Gauguin creates a dreamlike vision that describes the daily existence of adulthood. In the background, he included a couple walking and an exotic blue idol, which, according to Gauguin, symbolized ‘the Beyond'. The large canvas features some of Gauguin’s favorite subjects, such as the reclining nude, the group of figures lost in thought, and the cult statue.

The painting expressed Gauguin’s highly personal mythology, which was developed through the combination and adaption of symbols from a variety of Western and non-Western sources. In particular, the scene reflects the influence of Tahiti, its tropical landscape, and native Polynesian culture. Gauguin wanted the painting to evoke associative meanings, rather than explain explicitly the meaning of his symbolism. His symbolism expressed the inner world of visions and emotions, which was purposefully enigmatic and ambiguous. Gauguin wanted to interpret life as a great mystery, and in the painting, he emphasized the lack of understanding of the world.

After he completed the painting, Gauguin sent it to Paris to the art collector George-Daniel de Monfreid. Shortly after the artist retreated to the hills where he intended to poison himself by drinking arsenic. Gauguin’s suicide attempt failed, and he gradually recovered in the hospital. In the meantime, Monfried managed to sell the painting for a thousand francs, something that helped Gauguin’s spirits. Today the painting is part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a painting by French artist Paul Gauguin. Gauguin inscribed the original French title in the upper left corner: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. The inscription the artist wrote on his canvas has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897. The painting was created in Tahiti, and is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, US.

Gauguin had been a student at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, just outside Orléans, from the age of eleven to the age of sixteen. His subjects there included a class in Catholic liturgy; the teacher for this class was the Bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup. Dupanloup had devised his own catechism to be lodged in the minds of the young schoolboys, and to lead them towards proper spiritual reflections on the nature of life. The three fundamental questions in this catechism were: "Where does humanity come from?" "Where is it going to?", "How does humanity proceed?". Although in later life Gauguin was vociferously anticlerical, these questions from Dupanloup's catechism obviously had lodged in his mind, and "where?" became the key question that Gauguin asked in his art.

Looking for a society more simple and elemental than that of his native France, Gauguin left for Tahiti in 1891. In addition to several other paintings that express his highly individualistic mythology, he completed this painting in 1897 or 1898. Gauguin considered it a masterpiece and the grand culmination of his thought. He was in despair when he undertook the painting, mourning the tragic death of his favourite daughter earlier in the year and oppressed by debts, and had planned to kill himself on finishing it. He subsequently made an unsuccessful attempt with an overdose of arsenic. Thomson thinks it quite possible that he only painted in the inscription while recovering from the attempt.

Gauguin indicated that the painting should be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts"; at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as "the Beyond." Of its entirety he said, "I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it."

The painting is an accentuation of Gauguin's trailblazing post-impressionistic style; his art stressed the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes, tenets of the impressionists (though the Impressionists focused on quick brushstrokes), while it aimed to convey an emotional or expressionistic strength. It emerged in conjunction with other avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, including cubism and fauvism.

This is a part of the Wikipedia article used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA). The full text of the article is here →

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