Paul Gauguin wasn't exactly born with a paintbrush in his hand. The Parisian painter was a stockbroker before he took to the canvas in the early 1870s, then in his mid 20s. His success on the trading floor eventually enabled him to turn his hobby as a "Sunday painter" into the full-time career for which he is most celebrated.
Perhaps this first job, with its daily ups and downs, also prepared him for the vicissitudes of his life as an artist.
At any rate, most viewers of the Post Impressionist's work are thankful he didn't stick with stocks. His vivid imagination, bold sense of color, and deeply felt portrayals of subjects both exotic and primitive have put him on many art lovers' list of favorites.
But Gauguin didn't just paint pretty pictures. His work is highly personal, complex, and often enigmatic. He wanted it this way. Not one to make it easy for his viewers, he asked many questions and provided few answers. A historical exhibition now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is, in part, an attempt to answer some of these questions.
Perhaps the most famous questions posed by Gauguin form the title of his monumental work "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" ("Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?")
This stunning painting, which the MFA acquired for $80,000 in 1936, is the centerpiece of "Gauguin Tahiti" and what director Malcolm Rogers calls the exhibition's "intellectual stimulus."
The masterpiece daunted critics of Gauguin's own day - but he was thrilled with it. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "This canvas surpasses all my preceding ones ... I shall never do anything better, or even like it."
"Gauguin Tahiti" is the result of an international collaboration between the MFA and its French counterparts, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. It includes 150 works by Gauguin - not only paintings, but also wood sculptures, drawings, prints, illustrated manuscripts, and decorative art objects.
Most of the works in the exhibit were produced in Tahiti, or what Gauguin called his "Studio of the Tropics." There he sought inspiration different from his native France, a break from the Parisian art scene, and exotic beauty similar to that of Peru, where he spent much of his boyhood with his Peruvian mother's family.
For the most part, he found what he was looking for. But when his expectations weren't met, Gauguin would create exaggerated colors that he thought should be there, architectural details he couldn't find, or settings he imagined.
"Sometimes Gauguin depicts Tahiti as a lost paradise," says George Shackelford, the exhibit's cocurator, "where natives lived simply and peacefully in a veritable garden of Eden. It was a Tahiti he expected to find and didn't."
Still, it was there, says Mr. Shackelford, where he felt he could best convey the primitive, savage, and even barbaric qualities he was drawn to.
He also adored the Tahitian landscape, and, as anyone familiar with Gauguin's paintings knows, he was fascinated by the women. He considered their muscular, sculptural forms a welcome departure from more European ideas of beauty.
But in 1901, Gauguin decided that Tahiti was too civilized for his taste and moved to the Marquesas Islands. There he lived two more years, in poor health, and only occasionally put paint to canvas. In 1903, the year he died, Gauguin created only three paintings, two of which are on view in Boston.
Yet, in spite of Gauguin's suffering, his remarkable sense of color didn't fade. "His late work was unaffected by illness," says Shackelford. "He still skillfully juxtaposed deep greens and blues with vivid pinks and purples."
But in his last two works, amid those brilliant colors, Gauguin painted a startlingly new object: a small white cross on a distant hillside, which was the site of the cemetery where he was soon after buried.
• The show is on view at the MFA until June 20. It's the show's only US venue. A virtual tour is available at www.mfa.org.