Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
(D'où venons-nous? / Que sommes-nous? / Où allons-nous?)
In Paul Gauguin's masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, We see a series of Tahitian figures spread across the frame of the painting each participating in their own activities. The painting poses three fundamental questions, as the title states. The artist tells us that the painting is to be viewed from right to left and we notice that there are three groups of figures each representing one of the questions of human existence posed in the title, which is found in the upper left corner.
On the right side of the painting we see the baby with the three female figures looking on. This represents the beginning of life and the question of ‘Where Do We Come From?’. The group in the middle of the painting represents the daily existence of young adult life and why we are here. The third group, on the left of the painting, includes an old woman who according to the artist is, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts;" at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." This final group poses the final question of the title, ‘Where Are We Going?’
The painting invites us to contemplate life, why we are here, and where we will be going. Gauguin had traveled to Tahiti looking for a more elemental and simplistic society while there he painted this masterpiece starting in 1897 and finishing by 1898. Gauguin believed this to be his best work and that it would be unsurpassed by any other he might create. The painting has been a part of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston since 1936.
Landscape with Peacocks
A Suburban Street, 1884