Gauguin’s Health

In 1887 Gauguin went to Panama to find adventure and to have a change of scenery. After briefly working on the Panama Canal he left for Martinique, a small island in the Caribbean. In Martinique he contracted dysentery and malaria, two common illnesses associated with his era and that location.

Dysentery, an intestinal disorder, affects the colon and results in diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. In developed countries it is a mild illness that usually subsides in a few days, but in Gauguin's time it could ravage a country and cause tens of thousands of deaths. Combined with the malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes that causes fever, pain, and organ failure, Gauguin found it very difficult to work while in Martinique. Lacking money to buy food or medicine he spent much of his time bedridden. Only occasionally was he able to paint or touch up older paintings. Gauguin knew that if he wanted to get better he would have to return to France.

While painting in Brittany, in 1894, Gauguin was involved in a brawl. During the fight he broke his ankle. This injury plagued him for the rest of his life and resulted in him walking with a slight limp. He was constantly in pain, relying on pills to relieve the symptoms, and spending days in bed.

The next year in Paris he contracted syphilis from a prostitute. The treatments for syphilis were painful and took a toll on his mental health. The next few years he spent travelling, always trying to escape his problems and find solace somewhere else.

Late in 1897 and into the beginning of 1898 Gauguin was still feeling the effect of all of his ailments. He was fighting bouts of the flu, spitting up blood, and still trying to deal with ulcers in his leg. After painting what he thought would be his final piece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Gauguin left his house and walked up a hill where he would attempt suicide by swallowing a large amount of arsenic. After falling asleep on the hill, he was awoken suddenly as he was throwing up the arsenic, and would survive the attempt. He survived, but spent the next few months in bed, recovering from the incident.

Eventually, in 1903, Gauguin was living in French Polynesia where he got in trouble for political activism, taking the side of the islanders against the French colonialists. While in prison all of his ailments caught up with him. Weakened by excessive drinking, improper nourishment, and an overdose of morphine to treat the syphilis, Gauguin died of a heart attack at 54 years old on May 8th.

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