Artist Paul Gauguin in Tahiti

The Inspiration Behind This French Painter's Famous Work

Tahitian women on beach, 1891, by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), oil on canvas
Getty Images / DeAgostini

No artist is more indelibly tied to the South Pacific—and to Tahiti in particular—than 19th-century French painter Paul Gauguin. From his world-famous paintings of sensual Tahitian women to his unhealthy obsession with his exotic adopted home, Gauguin's work has inspired many travelers to visit Tahiti and other French Polynesian islands.

Nowadays you can book a trip to Tahiti aboard luxury cruises and stay in modern resorts on the islands of French Polynesia, but during Gauguin's first visit to Tahiti in the late 1800s, much of the island was inhabited by native people, with only the major cities occupied by European colonizers.

This untamed wilderness and the rich culture of its inhabitants inspired this French artist to paint some of the earliest and most famous depictions of French Polynesia. Although he was never truly famous in his lifetime, Gauguin has gone on to be one of the most famous French post-Impressionist artists of the time.

Paul Gauguin and Tahiti: A Brief History

Born Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin in Paris on June 7, 1848, to a French father and a Spanish-Peruvian mother, Paul Gauguin grew up traveling the world and living in exotic destinations.

From the age of three to seven, he lived in Lima, Peru, with his mother (his father died during the trip there) and then returned to France where he attended a seminary and worked as a merchant marine as a teenager.

Gauguin's first career was as a stockbroker, which he worked at for 12 years, and painting was merely a hobby until he became intrigued by the painters of the Impressionist movement of the late 1870s. In 1883, at the age of 35 and the father of five children, Gaugin gave up his business career to devote his life to painting.

It was 1890 when Gauguin left France and the western ideals he felt restricted by behind and moved to the island of Tahiti. He chose to live with natives far outside the capital, Papeete, where there were many European settlers. However, he returned to France three years later, from 1893 to 1895, before returning to French Polynesia and settling just 10 miles outside the city in an area settled by wealthy artists.

He died on May 8, 1903, alone and impoverished and suffering from syphilis on the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands and is buried there in Calvary Cemetery in Atuona.

Impact of Gauguin's Art on the World

Gauguin's Tahitian paintings are celebrated today for their bold use of color and symbolism, much of which inspired the French avant-garde and many modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

His later paintings largely depicted scenes from his time spent in Tahiti, especially of exotic, raven-haired women. They include La Orana Maria (1891), Tahitian women on Beach, (1891), The Seed of the Areoi (1892), Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897), and Two Tahitian Women (1899).

Gauguin's Tahitian masterpieces now hang in major museums and galleries around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Sadly, no original Gauguin paintings remain in French Polynesia. There is a rather rundown Gauguin Museum on the main island of Tahiti, but it contains solely reproductions of his work. Instead, Gauguin's Tahitian legacy lives on in a luxury cruise ship, the m/s Paul Gauguin, which cruises the islands year-round.