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Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is one of Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings. Gauguin inscribed this title - in French - in the upper left corner: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous; in the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897(!).

Created in Tahiti, it is currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Paul Gauguin, 1897–1898
oil on canvas, 139.1 × 374.6 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Provenance and history

Gauguin left for Tahiti in 1891, looking for a society more elemental and simplistic than that of his native France. In addition to several other paintings that he created which express a highly individualistic mythology, he began this painting in 1897 and finished it by 1898, considering it a masterpiece and grand culmination of his thoughts.

The curators of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the painting now resides, are continuously updating their record of the painting's ownership history, suggesting that their list is not comprehensive. In any case, in 1898, Gauguin sent the painting to Georges-Daniel de Monfreid in Paris. Subsequently, it was consigned and sold to several other Parisian and European merchants and collectors until it was purchased by the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York in 1936. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston acquired it from the Marie Harriman Gallery on 16 April 1936.

It was on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibit "Cézanne to Picasso" from February 17th to May 12 2007. It has since been returned to its home at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is approximately five feet (1.5 m) high and over twelve feet (3.60 m) long.

Style and analysis

Gauguin—after vowing that he would commit suicide following this painting's completion, something he had previously attempted—indicated that the painting should be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts;" at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as "the Beyond." Of its entirety he 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."

The painting is an accentuation of Gauguin's trailblazing postimpressionistic style; his art stressed the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes, tenets of the impressionists, while it aimed to convey an emotional or expressionistic strength. It emerged in conjunction with other avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, including cubism and fauvism.

Background

Gauguin had been a student at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, just outside of Orléans, from the age of eleven to the age of sixteen. His subjects there included a class in Catholic liturgy; the teacher for this class was the Bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup. Dupanloup had devised his own catechism to be lodged in the minds of the young schoolboys, and to lead them towards proper spiritual reflections on the nature of life. The three fundamental questions in this catechism were: "Where does humanity come from?" "Where is it going to?", "How does humanity proceed?". Although in later life Gauguin was vociferously anticlerical, these questions from Dupanloup's catechism obviously had lodged in his mind.

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