Painting by Paul Gaugin showing people relaxing together in an outdoor setting in Tahiti

D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?)
Paul Gaugin, 1897. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

New Heaven, New Earth: Doubles in the Art of Paul Gauguin

My thesis argues that the French artist Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) propensity towards “doubling” through his compositional forms and material choices points towards a ubiquitous ideological framework of dualism and opposition. The constant “doubling” of figures and forms in Gauguin’s art served as a means for Gauguin to tangibly represent the inherent contradictions in his own life and identity, as well as to interpolate the past into the present via reimagined memories. A fundamental link exists between how Gauguin communicates the paradoxes that define his twofold self-concept and his visual configuration of the world around him.

In the first chapter of my thesis, I introduce the terms double, pair, and mirror—all derived from Gauguin’s own writings—to illumine the multifold ways in which he configures dualistic figures and concepts into his compositions, looking at examples across media from his early years as an Impressionist in Paris and Copenhagen, to his final years at Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. In the second chapter, I delineate the oppositional forces that orient Gauguin’s worldview and create an inescapable tension. In the third chapter, I probe Gauguin’s use of archetypal images by focusing on his twofold conception of the Eve motif: the ancient Eve and the civilized Eve. In the fourth chapter, I take into consideration how doubling and mirroring pervade every aspect of Gauguin’s choices of materials, in particular his use of different printmaking techniques to create unique “double” images.

Recent scholarship by art historians such as Linda Goddard, Alastair Wright, Elizabeth Childs, and Stephen Eisenmann has begun to unpack these contradictions and paradoxes. These opposing forces, however, have yet to be contextualized as integral to Gauguin’s foundational system of understanding and interpretation, impacting every aspect of his experience of the world. Ultimately, Gauguin encodes his worldview into compositions, antipodal ideas embodied by his dualistic subjects and oppositional forms. Like a multifaceted crystal, Gauguin’s doubled art forms both reflect and refract his own inner world, one split by paradox and duality. Through his works, which mirror his own being, Gauguin distills the semblance of both a new heaven and a new earth, a multifaceted wholeness emerging from the schisms and shadows of an individual life.