Was Paul Gauguin a Monster?

What do you make of an artist who lived like this?

Christopher P Jones
8 min readSep 29, 2022

Self-portrait with Halo (1889) by Paul Gauguin. Oil on wood. 79.2 × 51.3 cm. Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., U.S. Image source NGA (public domain)

In this intriguing self-portrait, Paul Gauguin portrays himself with a halo above his head and a thin, sinuous snake between the fingers of his hand. The overlapping stems of a meandering plant in the foreground form a rhythmic pattern in front of him.

Along with the two apples that hang ominously beside his temple, this collection of motifs should bring to mind the Garden of Eden.

Eve was, of course, tempted by the cunning snake to take a bite of the forbidden fruit. Gauguin has remodelled the narrative to represent himself as a Fallen Angel — a spiritual rebel cast out from Heaven for his sins. He has tamed the snake and preserved his halo at the same time.

Suffering, piousness and artistic martyrdom were definitive emblems for Gauguin’s self-identity.

Take this letter, for instance, written to Vincent van Gogh in June 1890, in which Gauguin asserted his expectation of living on the edges of society as a sort of bitter anti-hero:

“Alas, I see myself condemned to be less and less understood, and I must hold fast to following my way alone, to drag out an existence without a family like a pariah. So the solitude in the woods seems to me in the future to be a new and almost dreamed-of paradise. The savage will return to savagery.”

Paul Gauguin sent this from Le Pouldu in Brittany, France, around Saturday 28 June 1890. It was actually to be the last letter that Gauguin wrote to Van Gogh, since the latter would be dead by the end of the following month.

Gauguin worked hard to cultivate his reputation as a tortured spirit destined to be always misunderstood by society. He was ambitious, arrogant and, to those who met him, often magnetic. So how should we judge an artist like this?

Snake or Saint?

One thing is for sure: Gauguin lived a complicated and wayward existence.

Told in a certain way, the narrative of Gauguin’s life bears many of the hallmarks of a modern-day legend: he refused to be bound by convention or material comforts. He cast off a lucrative career as a stockbroker to pursue dreams of becoming a painter. He abandoned a…