Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a painting by French artist Paul Gauguin. Gauguin inscribed the original French title in the upper left corner: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. The inscription the artist wrote on his canvas has no question mark, no dash, and all words are capitalized. In the upper right corner he signed and dated the painting: P. Gauguin / 1897. The painting was created in Tahiti, and is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, US.
Gauguin had been a student at the Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, just outside Orléans, from the age of 11 to the age of 16. His subjects there included a class in Catholic liturgy; the teacher for this class was the Bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup. Dupanloup had devised his own catechism to be lodged in the minds of the young schoolboys, and to lead them towards proper spiritual reflections on the nature of life. The three fundamental questions in this catechism were: "Where does humanity come from?" "Where is it going to?", "How does humanity proceed?". Although in later life Gauguin was vociferously anticlerical, these questions from Dupanloup's catechism obviously had lodged in his mind, and "where?" became the key question that Gauguin asked in his art.
Looking for a society more simple and elemental than that of his native France, Gauguin left for Tahiti in 1891. In addition to several other paintings that express his highly individualistic mythology, he completed this painting in 1897 or 1898. Gauguin considered it a masterpiece and the grand culmination of his thought. He was in despair when he undertook the painting, mourning the tragic death of his favorite daughter earlier in the year and oppressed by debts, and had planned to kill himself on finishing it. He subsequently made an unsuccessful attempt with an overdose of arsenic. Thomson thinks it quite possible that he only painted in the inscription while recovering from the attempt.
Gauguin indicated that the painting should be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups illustrating the questions posed in the title. The three women with a child represent the beginning of life; the middle group symbolizes the daily existence of young adulthood; and in the final group, according to the artist, "an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts"; at her feet, "a strange white bird...represents the futility of words." The blue idol in the background apparently represents what Gauguin described as "the Beyond." Of its entirety he said, "I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it."
The painting is an accentuation of Gauguin's trailblazing post-impressionistic style; his art stressed the vivid use of colors and thick brushstrokes, tenets of the impressionists (though the Impressionists focused on quick brushstrokes), while it aimed to convey an emotional or expressionistic strength. It emerged in conjunction with other avant-garde movements of the 20th century, including cubism and fauvism.
In 1898, Gauguin sent the painting to Georges-Daniel de Monfreid in Paris. Monfreid passed it to Ambroise Vollard along with eight other thematically related pictures shipped earlier. They went on view at Vollard's gallery from November to December 1898. The exhibition was a success, although D'où Venons Nous? received mixed reviews. The critic Andre Fontainas of the Mercure de France acknowledged a grudging respect for the work but thought the allegory impenetrable were it not for the inscription, and compared the painting unfavorably to the murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes who had died recently. Vollard had already purchased the other works as a job lot from Monfreid for 1,000 francs (Gauguin was furious when he found out), but refrained from purchasing the larger monumental work and had difficulty selling it on.
Charles Morice (fr) two years later tried to raise a public subscription to purchase the painting for the nation. To assist this endeavor, Gauguin wrote a detailed description of the work concluding with the messianic remark that he spoke in parables: "Seeing they see not, hearing they hear not". The subscription nevertheless failed. Vollard eventually sold the painting for 2,500 francs (about $10,000 in year 2000 US dollars) in 1901 to Gabriel Frizeau (fr), of which Vollard's commission was perhaps as much as 500 francs.
Subsequently, the painting was consigned and sold to several other Parisian and European merchants and collectors until it was purchased by the Marie Harriman Gallery in New York City in 1936. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquired it from the Marie Harriman Gallery on 16 April 1936.