Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin –Analysis by John R. Shipp
Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is a well-known French artist and his artwork is considered to be in the post-impressionist style. The colorful Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-98) is perhaps Gauguin’s greatest largest artwork. It measures 54.8 inches by 147.5 inches and it is owned and displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, mfa.org.
Regarding Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin 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.”
Gauguin created the painting in Tahiti and indicated that it should be read from right to left with the three women and child on the right as an allegory of the beginning of life, the middle area representing young adulthood and the group on the left symbolizing old age. He also indicated that on the far left is “a strange white bird…represents the futility of words.”
Wikipedia.org points out (from Martin Gayford’s book The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles) that from age 11 through 16 Gauguin was a student at the Petit Seminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin. His teacher of a class in Catholic liturgy was Felix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, Bishop of Orleans. Dupanloup taught his students the catechism of three fundamental questions: “Where does humanity come from?” “Where is it going to?” “How does humanity proceed?” Although Gauguin was said to be anticlerical in later life, these three questions do appear to tie in with this painting.
Paul Gauguin appears to refer to several of his own previous paintings in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
The crouching person of the far left and the surrounding area looks very similar to Gauguin’s 1889 painting Breton Eve:
This same posture is also shown in Gauguin’s oil The Royal End from 1892:
The other woman in a loincloth in the far left foreground and the white bird of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
closely resembles Gauguin’s earlier painting Vairumati:
The blue statue of a person with their arms out is similar to an idol-like object in Gauguin’s painting Tehamana has many Parents:
The yellow man in a loincloth standing near the center of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is similar to two paintings by Gauguin from the same year, Man Picking Fruit from a Tree and Tahitian Man with his Arms Raised. It is difficult to tell if Where Do We Come From? came before or after these other two, but they are similar.
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? has all four people in the same positions and placement as in Tahitian Man with his Arms Raised.
Now here is where it gets really interesting. Gauguin refers to photographic works by Oscar Gustave Reijlander (1813-1875).
In 1857 Rejlander created two photomontages entitled Two Ways of Life. The images were a combination print created from 32 separate shots, and Rejlander is possibly the inventor of this technique which is a bit like Adobe’s Photoshop software of today. Two Ways of Life was also the first photo of a nude exhibited publicly which at the time was very controversial. Wikipedia notes that “the ‘indecency’ faded when Queen Victoria ordered a 10-guinea copy to give to Prince Albert.” In Two Ways of Life, a father figure shows two young men at he threshold of adulthood. The young man on the left looks toward allegories of vice on the left side of the photo including gambling, wine, vanity and prostitution. The young man on the right glances at allegories of virtue on the right side of the photo with family, industry and religion. Penitence, the nude in the center, looks toward the right, rejecting immorality. Below are the two versions of Two Ways of Life along with Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? to compare:
Rejlander is said to refer to the seedy side of London as depicted in the serialized novel Mysteries of London by George Reynolds (1842-1909). Rejlander also references shapes and lines from the famous painting School of Athens by Raphael (1483-1520) which visually depicts the two paths of science and philosophy. Raphael’s fresco looks more referenced by Two Ways of Life than Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Here is School of Athens to compare for yourself:
As I mentioned before, Gauguin has said that Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? should be read from right to left. Overlapping his painting with Two Ways of Life would indicate that we come from or are brought up in virtue, we are always faced with a choice of morality and immorality, and we are headed toward nefarious activities as we age. This progression could perhaps be interpreted as spanning the life of a person or as an allegory for the evolution of mankind.
If The Two Paths of Life does not seem to be a strong enough connection to Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Paul Gauguin also refers to several other photographs by Rejlander in this painting. These Rejlander photos are not listed on Wikimedia Commons although they are old enough to be in the public domain. Please look these photos up on the internet and compare them with Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? The infant in the lower right of Gauguin’s painting resembles Rejlander’s photo Sleeping Child. Gauguin’s blue idol with arms out resembles the postures of people in Rejlander’s photos of Surprised Person and Astonishment. Interestingly Gauguin appears to place the emotion of surprise on the side of vice. Another Rejlander photo, The Juggler (ca 1865), resembles the arms of the blue figure in Gaugin’s painting.
Gauguin also appears to parallel the Rejlander photo Portrait of two Children praying (ca 1860) with the two yellow women seated in the right foreground of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Portrait of two Chilren Praying can be viewed online at the George Eastman House, geh.org, #72:0249:0028. Gaugin also seems to have drawn the yellow seated girl on the left from Rejlander’s photo of Putto as Allegory of Painting also seen at geh.org, #72:0249:0038.
Gauguin’s yellow seated figure with her right arm curled and hand on her head is a similar arm pose to Rejander’s photo of a nude (unknown title) with her right arm over her head. Gauguin’s seated child with a fruit in the lower left-center resembles Rejlander’s photo of a seated child. Gauguin’s seated woman on the far right with her back to the viewer shows head’s left profile like two photos by Rejlander. Also, the photo composite of part nude woman and part stream is referenced in Gauguin’s painting by the white bird and white ground on the far left of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin’s white bird resembles the face of the woman in the same Rejlander photo. Gauguin’s seated group of three woman and the infant also appears to reference Rejlander’s photo of a barefoot boy standing near a wooden bucket. Gauguin’s woman with her back to us with the infant resembles the shapes of the bucket and the rocks in the lower right in Rejlander’s picture. Gauguin’s same group in the lower right also references a Rejlander photo montage of a large eye in an outdoor scene. The dog on the far right in Gauguin’s painting also resembles the crow in Rejlander’s large eye picture. The yellow man standing in the center with arms raised in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is similar to a Rejlander photo of two people (one nude) holding hands above their heads. The arms raised is also a reference to Rejlander’s 1857 photo entitled Too Late at the Princeton University Art Museum, object # x1993-17.
Gauguin also appears to tie in several other photographs by Rejlander in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, but less obviously than the ones mentioned above. Look at other Rejlander photos and see if you see parallels in the Gauguin painting. The other paintings by Gauguin which appear similar to figures in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? are likely also references to Rejlander. All the Rejlander photos were made decades before the Gauguin paintings mentioned here.
Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is another example of a famous work of art with references to many works by another artist. My first example is an analysis of Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. Gauguin created his masterpiece in 1897 so it’s safe to say that Hopper was not the first to use this technique. Gauguin was not the first either. Who was the first? Possibly Giotto, an early 14th century artist, who we will discuss in a future blog.
What I have told you so far does not, in my opinion, warrant Paul Gauguin to call Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? his best work of art ever. However what I will discuss next might qualify.
A technique of looking for hidden shapes in paintings which I have talked about before (Nighthawks) is to turn the work of art on its side or upside-down where shapes may be more obvious to our minds. Someday perhaps some famous art museum may host an upside-down day where all the works of art are displayed upside-down. Try looking at Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? turned ninety degrees clockwise and counterclockwise. Does anything look familiar?
What I saw in Gauguin’s artwork in hidden symbolism is more controversial than his references to photos by Rejlander. Nevertheless I believe what I saw was intended by Gauguin in the artwork, so I will talk about it.
Gauguin makes references to a very famous work of art from 1599-1600, The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (1571-1610):
The story of Caravaggio’s famous work comes from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9), “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” In Caravaggio’s painting St. Matthew is the bearded man sitting with four others at a table. A more recent interpretation of the painting has the man on the far left as Matthew but in 1897 he was only interpreted as the bearded man. Jesus and St. Peter are standing on the far right and facing to the left. Jesus is pointing at Matthew. Matthew points at himself, as if to say, “Who, me?”
Now this is still not easy to see from Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, so I have made some drawings to help you see.
I have included a drawing of legs with male anatomy and another with female anatomy from lines of Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? as I think Gauguin intended to depict both shapes in his story. The genitalia is from lines of the pedestal of the blue statue in Gauguin’s painting, and he may have been saying that mankind holds these private parts on a pedestal.
As mentioned before, Gauguin said to read Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? from right to left. Where Do We Come From? is on the right side of Gauguin’s painting and corresponds to the side of virtue in Oscar Gustave Rejlander’s photographs of the Two Ways of Life. The right side of Gauguin’s painting also depicts the virtuous Jesus and St. Peter from Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. On the left side, the “where are we going” side of Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Gauguin refers to seedy side of Two Ways of Life as well as St. Mathew and his friends looking somewhat nefarious.
The drawing which I made of “Where Do We Come From? Pointing” could be Jesus pointing at St. Matthew or St. Matthew pointing at himself and I think Gauguin intends to mean deliberately both. The yellow man from Gauguin’s painting reaches up to pick a piece of fruit, the symbol of original sin, depicting the middle part “what are we” but also depicts the pointing hand of both the sinful side and the virtuous side. The seated woman in yellow with her right arm on her head corresponds with Caravaggio’s hand of St. Peter, but Gauguin depicts the pointing index finger as more curved, perhaps to tell the viewer to flip the painting the other direction to see the shapes of St. Matthew and the boy. Also perhaps to say that his mural of mankind is like a playing card with images as reflections of each other. Sin and virtue are two sides of the same coin.
Please keep in mind that this is just one person’s interpretation and I may or may not be right about what Paul Gauguin intended in his great painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? however I do hope that this analysis does provide some food for thought on this painting and many other works of art by Gauguin and others.
Go over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and visit Gauguin’s giant mural and turn your head to see the painting from its side. You might see more.