Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897–98, Oil on canvas, 139.1 x 374.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 36.270, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Tompkins Collection / Bridgeman Images

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A Personal Philosophy

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, Paul Gauguin was later severely critical of the Catholic Church (Silverman 2008: 156, 160) and his art increasingly reflected his eclectic philosophy of life. Like Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, Gauguin sought to understand the meaning of existence, and he used painting to explore his ideas. His 1897–98 work, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a testament to this personal search for meaning.

Although Gauguin resisted attempts to read this work in allegorical terms, he nevertheless described it as expressing the cycle of birth, life, and death. In letters to friends, he explained the significance of some of its elements. The central standing figure picking a fruit indicates the human passage from the Edenic innocence of the sleeping baby on the far right, to adult knowledge. (This theme is echoed by a child eating fruit in the foreground). In the background, two figures stand next to the tree of knowledge (or ‘science’), confiding their thoughts to each other and expressing the sorrow which knowledge has caused them. A crouching figure with a raised arm stares in amazement at the audacity of this pair in daring to contemplate their destiny. As Qohelet says, ‘in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow’ (1:18).

The old woman on the left of the canvas has reached a state of acceptance and resignation as she approaches death, while the semi-nude young woman seated beside her is touching her elder’s shadow, as if to suggest that she too is heading in the same direction. The large grey-blue idol represents the unknowable ‘Beyond’ (l’au-delà), and the strange white bird at the far left, clutching a lizard, signifies the futility of words. (Segalen 1930: 201–2; Malingue 1956: 305)

In short, as Qohelet suggests, knowledge brings sorrow, death comes to everyone, and there is a mystery to existence which is beyond human understanding (1:18; 2:12–18).



Malingue, Maurice (ed.). 1946. Lettres de Gauguin à sa femme et à ses amis, recueillies et préfacées (Paris: B. Grasset), p. 305

Segalen, Victor (ed.). 1930. Lettres de Paul Gauguin a Georges-Daniel de Monfreid (Paris: Plon), pp. 201–2

Silverman, Debora. 2008. ‘Transcending the Word? Religion and Music in Gauguin’s Quest for Abstraction’, in French Music, Culture, and National Identity, 1870–1939, ed. by Barbara L. Kelly (Suffolk: University of Rochester Press)

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