First a sailor, then a stockbroker, and finally a painter, did you know Paul Gauguin lived several lives all across the globeknow? KAZoART pays tribute to one of the 19th century’s leading artists with seven interesting facts you might not have known about Paul Gauguin, a pioneer of the modern art movement. And you might be in for some surprises!

Paul Gauguin, seven key facts!

#1 Gauguin was Flora Tristan’s grandson

 Portrait of Flora Tristan (public domain)
Portrait of Flora Tristan (public domain)

French feminist writer Flora Tristan was Paul Gauguin’s maternal grandmother! The French-Peruvian author married engraver André Chazal at the age of just 17, but the union was an unprecedented disaster.

Chazal was violent, jealous, and constantly humiliating Flora. She managed to escape his clutches in 1825, taking her children with her, including Aline, Paul Gauguin’s future mother.

André Chazal eventually caught up with her and took her daughter away. He even tried to shoot his ex-wife with a pistol in 1838, before being sentenced to 20 years of forced labor.

#2 Before becoming a painter, Gauguin was a sailor and stockbroker

Paul Gauguin became a painter fairly late in life and his early career was marked by a quite different path. Indeed, at the age of 17, he became a sailor in the merchant navy and set sail for Rio de Janeiro. This marked a return to native lands, as the Parisian-born future artist had grown up in South America after his parents fled France for Lima to escape the political regime of Napoleon III.

After being promoted to the position of lieutenant and fighting in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, he left the navy. Another life awaited, the world of finance. With the help of a family friend, he became a stockbroker. This provided the young Gauguin with stable work, that is until the Paris Bourse Crash in 1882. Discovering a newfound passion for painting, this unfortunate turn of events offered the artist a chance to embark on a new career.

#3 Gauguin was left heartbroken by the loss of his family in 1885

 Paul Gauguin, Mette Gauguin in an Evening Dress
Paul Gauguin, Mette Gauguin in an Evening Dress (oil on canvas, 1884) / Paul Gauguin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gauguin spent a few months in Rouen with Camille Pissarro and devoted his life entirely to painting. Nonetheless, the 40 artworks he produced in less than a year were not enough to earn a living, leading him to leave France for Copenhagen. There he reunited with his Danish wife Mette and their five children. The entire family lived together in Mette’s mother’s house.

But Gauguin struggled to flourish in the home of his stepmother, who he frequently failed to see eye to eye with. His work was also unstable, forcing him to return to Paris in 1885, leaving his family behind in Denmark and his heart broken. He did, however, take one of his children with him, Clovis. He also visited his family in 1891 and 1895.

#4 Gauguin helped build the Panama Canal

For a month in 1887, Gauguin joined the workers building the Panama Canal. He wrote to his wife, “I have to dig from 5.30 am in the morning until 6 pm in the evening under the tropical sun and rain.At night, the mosquitoes eat me alive.”

Almost 25,000 workers died during construction of the canal. As for Gauguin, he fell ill and suffered from dysentery and malaria.

#5 A new life in Tahiti

 Paul Gauguin, The Beautiful Angel
Paul Gauguin, The Beautiful Angel (oil on canvas, 1889) / Paul Gauguin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gauguin didn’t settle in France and in 1891, he left the country for Tahiti, where the French government commissioned him to study the island’s customs and landscapes. It was thanks to Edgar Degas’ purchase of his painting The Beautiful Angel and the public sale of his works that Gauguin was able to pay for the experience.

After Tahiti, he explored the Marquesas Islands. During this period, cut-off from Western civilization, he finally flourished, thriving on the tropical setting and bright colors that gave his artwork a new lease of life and creativity.

#6 Forced to sell his paintings to pay for treatment

 Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach
Paul Gauguin, Tahitian Women on the Beach (1891) / Paul Gauguin [Public domain]

In the late 1890s, Gauguin experienced a very difficult period in his life. The death of his daughter Aline in 1897 plunged him into a deep depression. He was also suffering greatly from a wound to the leg received during a fight in Concarneau a few years previously. So troubled was the artist, he even tried to commit suicide. He eventually sold his paintings and bought morphine and arsenic to definitively soothe his pain.

#7 One of Gauguin’s masterpieces sold for €265 million

 Paul Gauguin, When Will You Marry?
Paul Gauguin, When Will You Marry? (oil on canvas, 1892) / Paul Gauguin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1882, in French Polynesia, Gauguin produced the painting When Will You Marry? (in Tahitian: Nafea Faa Ipoipo?), a portrait depicted in warm colors showing two young Tahitians sitting in a tropical setting.

Unbeknownst to the artist, the oil on canvas painting— which was sold for 7 francs when he died—was bought by a Qatari family for €265 million in February 2015.