Gauguin’s artistic quest to achieve moral excellence

| October 20, 2007

The following excerpt is from an unpublished essay on Gauguin (the artist) and Genius (the concept). First explored in a chapter in my doctoral dissertation, my argument is that Gauguin was a highly moral person – in spite of his sometimes reckless and irresponsible actions. I think this is an important counterintuitive case, for it allows us to consider how different (and sometimes competing) aspects of personhood define not only our own conception of morality, but moral philosophy itself.

From the introduction:

Why did middle-aged Paul Gauguin abandon his family and social context to live as a poor, reclusive painter? Could a moral conception be said to have sealed his fate to live in Tahiti as an estranged and unhealthy expatriate until his untimely death? The answer may lie in his artistic oeuvre, which includes over forty self-portraits in several different mediums, including more than twenty oil paintings. Here I argue that his self-portraits, in conjunction with his self-reflection in many letters to his wife and friends, form evidence that a conception of artistic genius became a touchstone of his art and life — a comprehensive conception of “goodness” that shaped his reception of tradition and transformed his whole life into a mythic quest.

Further evidence comes in the form of philosophical context. Romanticism and religion, two influential social currents of the Parisian artworld, fed into Gauguin’s perception of himself as an artist — he was, after all, first persuaded to take his painting seriously by his contemporaries. Reflection on spirituality became a prominent feature of his “artistic consciousness,” and became a theme that ran through his work in self-portraiture. This reflection, against a backdrop of Romantic and religious imagery, led Gauguin to discover a concept of artistic genius — heightened by Romanticism’s obsession with aesthetic transcendence — that especially propelled his artistic and spiritual quests.