Paul Gauguin, Reclining Tahitian Women (detail), 1894. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 x 19 1/4 in. (60 x 49 cm). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1832. Photograph by Ole Haupt, © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey

In the first exhibition at the Fine Arts Museums dedicated to the work of Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), an exceptional display of more than fifty Gauguin paintings, wood carvings, and ceramics from the renowned collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, will be on view for the first time in San Francisco. In presenting these pieces alongside Oceanic art and Gauguin works on paper from the Fine Arts Museums’ permanent collections, the exhibition explores Gauguin’s inner quests and imaginings — his spiritual journey — and how his intimate relationships with his wife, other artists, and people he encountered during his sojourns shaped his experiences, his work, and his development as an artist. Included in the exhibition is a new video work, First Impressions: Paul Gauguin by interdisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara, commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, that addresses the colonial gaze represented by Gauguin and turns it back toward Western culture.

In depth

Central to Gauguin’s career were intimate relationships and professional friendships that defined his life and work as well as his quest to understand his own spirituality and that of other cultures. Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey will present Gauguin’s paintings, ceramics, and wood carvings with Oceanic pieces and works of art on paper in seven narrative sections. Period photography and excerpts from Gauguin’s letters and writings will highlight these key periods of his travel, relationships, and creativity. Visitors will see the progression and scope of his oeuvre, from an early drawing of his wife, Mette Gad, ca. 1873, to late and well-known works painted in Tahiti or inspired by his time in the Pacific.

The exhibition features artworks from all the distinctive phases of his work. A revolutionary artist, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) began his career mentored by Impressionists Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne, and he worked in their style. He collaborated with other artists of his time, including Van Gogh and Émile Bernard, as he experimented with Symbolism and Synthetism/Cloisonnism. He developed his own distinctive, expressive style of painting, using flat fields of bold color and dark outlines that went on to influence artists of the early twentieth century, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Although Gauguin was best known as a painter and printmaker, the exhibition also features ceramics and wood carvings that reveal his creative interest in decorative arts and might be surprising to viewers. In addition, through the exceptional works in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek collection, viewers will learn about Gauguin’s own Impressionist art collection, which he greatly valued throughout his life and which include two works by Pissarro that are featured in the exhibition.

In Europe and abroad, Gauguin continually worked to explore new ideas and push boundaries of technique and style in pursuit of critical recognition and commercial success. This is revealed through the range of works in the exhibition, such as Woman Sewing, Gauguin’s first nude subject, shown at the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, plus one of his most well-known portraits, Tahitian Woman with a Flower (Vahine no te tiare), from 1891. It was one of the first paintings Gauguin produced after his arrival in Tahiti.

Paintings were not the sole focus of Gauguin’s artistic practice, though. He also collaborated with the ceramist Ernest Chaplet and experimented with hand-formed ceramics throughout his career. The exhibition includes fifteen remarkable vessels and forms he called “monstrosities” and “sculptures.” What’s more, five wood carvings from the Glyptotek collection, including an important biblical subject, offer visitors a special opportunity to see his work in other media that has recently garnered significant scholarly attention in the United States and abroad. Works from FAMSF’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, including one of Gauguin’s most notable drawings that he gave to Van Gogh, bring awareness to the Achenbach’s significance as the largest repository of works of art on paper in the western United States. Gauguin was greatly influenced by Pacific art and culture, so the exhibition includes rare artworks from FAMSF’s collection corresponding to the time of Gauguin’s travel and work in the region, adding to visitors’ understanding of the Pacific histories, beliefs, and art that captured Gauguin’s imagination and inspired his work. The FAMSF pieces complement the loans and provide an unprecedented opportunity to acquaint visitors with compelling permanent collection works in a distinct context.

Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey is the result of an exceptional partnership, exhibiting the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek for the first time in San Francisco alongside important works from the permanent collection in the Fine Arts Museums’ first exhibition dedicated to Gauguin. Combined, the collections cover the breadth of his creative endeavors and present art from Pacific cultures that inspired Gauguin’s artistic practice. Viewers will become acquainted with the trajectory of Gauguin’s spiritual journey and his interconnected lives as an artist, husband, partner, and friend that make him such an influential and fascinating figure.

In the news

  • On track to be the show of the season.

    Sura Wood, Bay Area Reporter,
  • The scholarly exhibit is a revelation as it charts the development of an unconventional, not to mention controversial artist.

    Robert Taylor, The Mercury News,


Visit Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey to view First Impressions: Paul Gauguin (2018) in full, written and directed by Yuki Kihara, and commissioned especially for the exhibition by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

"First Impressions: Paul Gauguin" by Yuki Kihara


This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.

Presenting Sponsors
John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn
Diane B. Wilsey
The Donald L. Wyler Trust

Significant Support
Janet Barnes and Thomas W. Weisel Family
United Airlines

Generous Support
Mark Blackburn 
Alec and Gail Merriam
Paul A. Violich

Currently on view