Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1898

Gauguin’s monumental painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? may be seen as embodying the quintessence of his art. In compelling fashion, the artist here addresses the existential questions of birth, life, fate and death and the relation between humankind, nature, culture and religion. Gauguin painted it, in fact, with the idea that it would indeed be his last picture, since he attempted to take his own life shortly afterwards. The particular importance that this “frieze of life” held for him personally is underlined by the fact that he talked in such detail and such length about few other works in his oeuvre. Thus he wrote in a letter of 1898: “But before I died I wished to paint a large canvas that I had in mind, and I worked day and night that whole month in an incredible fever. [...] They will say that it is careless, unfinished. It is true that it is hard to judge one’s own work, but in spite of that I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better, or even like it. Before death I put in it all my energy, a passion so dolorous, amid circumstances so terrible, and so clear was my vision that the haste of the execution is lost and life surges up.”


Oil on canvas, 139,1 x 374,6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tompkins Collection, Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund; Photo: © 2015 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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