Gauguin: Alchemist at the AIC






Who has not wished, at some point, to dive right into one of Paul Gaugin’s canvases, right into his magical renderings of Tahiti with green and red horses, mysterious symbols on woodcuts, and bewitchingly beautiful people with flowers behind their ears?


Paul Gauguin. Mahana no atua (Day of the God), 1894. The Art Institute of Chicago, Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.

This summer, the Art Institute of Chicago will offer visitors 200 works showing the impressionist artist’s expansive vision as expressed in paintings, woodcuts, furniture, and ceramics. Through new imagining technology, previously unknown secrets of his methods and materials will be revealed.

This sneak peak seems like the perfect antidote to dreary March weather in Chicago, far from Tahiti’s sunshine.


Paul Gauguin. Te nave nave fenua, about 1892. Musée de Grenoble, bequest of Agutte-Sembat, 1923
© Musée de Grenoble.

For over four years, Harriet Stratis, the Art Institute’s senior research conservator in the Department of Prints and Drawings, has placed under her microscope masterpieces on wood, canvas, paper, and clay for Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist, perfecting her role as scholar, scientist, and sleuth. “I often asked, “What is he trying to tell us about us?” she recalled. The discoveries made through Stratis’s research will appear in cutting edge videos throughout the exhibition.

With the application of new analytical and imaging technologies, the Art Institute has become a global leader in the field of technical art history.

From June 25 until September 10, the Art Institute will present comprehensive picture of the artist’s production based on the Art Institute technical and scientific investigations. Stratis has partnered with Gloria Groom, Chairman of European Painting and Sculpture, and the Chicago Tribune’s 2016 Person of the Year for Museums.


Gloria Groom

For the past four years, Stratis has used a variety of tools to look at the Art Institute’s extensive Gauguin collection:

“With new technology, we are able to see how works were made and how things like tropical colors have changed over the years. We used a variety of analytical techniques, including x-ray spectroscopy. With this technology, we were able to determine what materials the artist used and how he used them, and to make more subjective determinations as to the nature and degree of color changes in the works. For example, many of the sketches that were removed from Gauguin’s sketchbooks that today appear to be drawn in brown ink were originally drawn in purple ink, which now has faded and altered to brown. What we thought were subdued palettes actually were unanticipated color changes.

“The opportunity to show these changes to our visitors is a great gift. Technical art historians act as scientists looking, for example, at particles of yellow paint under an x-ray where you see its florescence. We think about where we can improve the color, but this would be done with a very conservative approach.

Groom explains the Art Institute’s longterm appreciation of the artist:

“Gauguin has been in the Art Institute’s DNA for a long time. We have the most important collection of Gauguin unique works on paper anywhere outside of Paris. We have recently published in an online scholarly catalogue.

“With this exhibition, we are building on to the exhibition we organized with the National Gallery of Art and the Musée d’Orsay in 1988, which was the most important exhibition to date of Gauguin’s works in stone, wood, clay, and other media. And now we are here again 30 years later working with the Musée d’Orsay and sharing with the public our exciting new research on an artist whose works continue to provoke, amaze, and delight.  

“We will situate his three-dimensional art—furniture, sculptures, ceramic pots, and Polynesian-like bowls and canes among other objects—within his radically experimental career as a painter and printmaker. 

“The title, Gauguin as Alchemist, refers to his ability to use common materials associated with craft in the service of a modern art form and to move from one media to another, including using some found objects to make something entirely new and modern.”

The Art Institute has the world’s largest holdings of Gauguin’s works on paper, and the Musée d’Orsay houses some of his most important paintings, sculptures, and ceramics. Enhancing the works of these two museums will be loans from private collections and other leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., as well as the Tate in London, the Natural Gallery of Scotland, the Petit Palais and Musée des Beaux Arts de la Ville in Paris, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.


Paul Gauguin. The Singer, 1880. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, MIN 3230.

Groom describes Gauguin’s days in Tahiti:

“Although Gauguin wanted to be a native while he was in Tahiti, he was still a French gentleman and sacrificed everything to be an artist, which he was with a capitol A. He definitely knew how to make do with art supplies, although he wanted to use good materials. He was in Tahiti and realized that his Parisian suppliers hadn’t sent him the right paint. Instead, they had sent eight tubes of green paint!

“You also see him working with double paper—he was so experimental. Much of his work was done in Montparnasse in his small studio where he worked on a table.”


Paul Gauguin. Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana), 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Deering McCormick.


Paul Gauguin. Clovis Sleeping, 1884. Private collection.

Groom sees Gauguin as a great innovator:


“He was really before his time—a master of multi-media. We think our children’s activities for the exhibition will introduce them to his creative process. We will have many pop-up activities, including printmaking and working with clay.”

This will be a serve as a fun hands-on companion activity to the many ceramic works of the artist: 26 of the 60 known ceramic pieces he created will by on display.

“Just as we did with Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, we will use scientific analysis, as well as art history, to present the meaning and making of some of his most complex and enigmatic art works, which we hope will allow our public to experience anew the achievements of an artist who, as he himself remarked, “dared everything for his art.”




For more information about Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist and other Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions, visit


Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago