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Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin

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

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” by Paul Gauguin depicts three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title of this composition.

Gauguin felt strongly about this painting, he stated:

“I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it.”

Staring with the group on the right, the three women with a child represent the beginning of life. The middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young and adulthood.

In the final group, on the left, according to the artist:

“an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts.”

At her feet, the white bird represents the uselessness of vain words. The blue idol in the background represents what Gauguin described as “the Beyond.”

Gauguin’s post-impressionistic style is defined by the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes. It is impressionists with the focus on quick brushstrokes, but it aimed to convey an emotional vision.

The inscription that Gauguin wrote on the top left corner of the canvas gives the painting its title, but it has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right, he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897.

Gauguin painted this canvas in Tahiti, where he went looking for a society more simple and more elemental than that of his native France. He left for Tahiti in 1891, and he painted several paintings that express his highly individualistic mythology.

Paul Gauguin was in despair when he undertook the painting, mourning the death of his favorite daughter earlier in that year. He was oppressed by debts and had planned to kill himself on finishing this painting. He subsequently made an unsuccessful attempt with an overdose of arsenic.

Later, Gauguin wrote a detailed description of the work concluding with the remark that:

“Seeing they see not, hearing they hear not.”

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) was a French post-Impressionist artist who was not appreciated until after his death.

Gauguin is now recognized for his experimental use of color and the Synthetist style that were distinctly different from Impressionism.

He spent the last ten years of his life in French Polynesia, and most of his paintings from this time depict people or landscapes from that region.

His work was influential to the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gauguin’s art became famous after his death.

Gauguin was an essential figure in the Symbolist movement as a painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramist, and writer.

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

  • Title:               Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
  • French:           D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?
  • Artist:             Paul Gauguin
  • Year:               1897
  • Medium:        oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 139.1 cm (54.7 in); Width: 374.6 cm (12.2 ft)
  • Museum:        Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Paul Gauguin

A Virtual Tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


“I shut my eyes in order to see.”
– Paul Gauguin


Photo Credit: Paul Gauguin [Public domain]

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