Paul Gauguin and Spirituality

Open Access
Swindle, Stephanie Nichole
Graduate Program:
Art History
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Nancy Elizabeth Locke, Thesis Advisor
  • Madhuri Shrikant Desai, Thesis Advisor
  • sunflowers
  • spirituality
  • Paul Gauguin
  • van Gogh
My thesis on Paul Gauguin offers a more comprehensive study of his paintings’ relationships to Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, and Tahitian religion. Paul Gauguin’s career is typically broken into two distinct periods, his early years in France and his later years in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Moreover, this binary approach to understanding Gauguin’s art involves a chronological reading. I have taken a thematic approach featuring Gauguin’s interests in religion and spirituality. Gauguin explores his preoccupation with archetypes and self-identity through religious and literary symbolism. A product of the nineteenth-century, Gauguin desires to escape European civilization and goes Tahiti in search of artistic inspiration. The artist never manages to break ties with the past and spends the rest of his career attempting to reconcile his works with his own position inside and outside of religions and cultures. Gauguin’s spiritual interest reveals itself in his self-portraits as Christ, Satan, Jean Valjean, a Magyar, and one of the Fayum dead as well as in his most philosophical artistic statement, Where Do We Come from? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? In an effort to understand the complexities of Gauguin’s work, it is necessary to consider his œuvre as well as his liminal position in regard to geography, culture, and religion. My goal is to consider his paintings within a broader religious framework in order to give his works a greater sense of symbolic and visual complexity.