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Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Paul Gauguin • Painting, 1898, 139.1×374.6 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Allegorical scene
Style of art: Post-Impressionism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1898
Size: 139.1×374.6 cm
Artwork in collection: Work Deleted
Artwork in selections: 76 selections

Description of the artwork «Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?»

Year 1897 was perhaps the most difficult and gloomy year for Gauguin in his entire life. In April, his beloved daughter Aline died of pneumonia at the age of 19, and the artist barely survived this loss. In addition, he was experiencing serious financial difficulties. Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid that he literally had no piece of bread and was forced to eat only what he could get himself: fruit and freshwater shrimps. To top it off, Gauguin’s health problems worsened. During that gloomy period, the artist desperately tried to find at least some meaning in his life, but he failed. And then Gauguin decides to commit suicide, but before his death he decided to create his last picture, which would become his main masterpiece.

The “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” painting became the largest and probably the most famous painting by Gauguin. The work progressed slowly: the artist had pain in his legs, he suffered from conjunctivitis, heartache, attacks of suffocation and dizziness. But the finished painting was worth all the suffering that Gauguin experienced. It really was a masterpiece. Soon after the completion of work on this canvas, in January 1898, the artist went to die in the mountains with a “lethal” dose of arsenic. But his body rejected too much poison, and Gauguin survived. After that, the joy of life miraculously returned to him, besides, the financial situation began to improve gradually, allowing the artist to improve his health.

One of the main features of the “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” lies in the fact that it must be “read” not from left to right, as we are used to, but vice versa (from a serenely sleeping baby to an old woman crouching in the left corner on the verge of death). In this, researchers see the influence of Kabbalistic texts, which Gauguin was fond of. In its style, the painting resembles frescoes and icons painted on a gold background, this effect is emphasized by the bright yellow upper corners of the canvas. And the figures seem to be floating in space, and not standing on the ground. These stylistic features, together with the mysterious subject, enhance the “philosophical” mood of the picture. Gauguin touches upon the questions that absolutely every person asks during his life, making the plot universal. But at the same time “Where Do We Come From?..” is a very personal artwork, the true meaning of all the elements of which was only known to the artist himself.

Author: Yevheniia Sidelnikova