In the winter of 1897, Gauguin experienced a psychological crisis. He had left France for Tahiti six years prior, hoping to discover an unspoiled tropical paradise in the French colony, where he could live affordably and advance his art. Instead, he was frustrated by the modernity he witnessed, quarreled with French colonial authorities, struggled financially, and endured a steep mental and physical decline. At a time of heightened personal hardship, Gauguin explored fundamental questions concerning the nature and meaning of life in this monumental painting—the largest he ever attempted—an ambitious effort in decorative mural painting, no doubt made with an eye to his artistic legacy.
In his letters, Gauguin described the composition proceeding from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant and ending with the huddled figure of “an old woman nearing death.” Near center, an androgynous standing figure reaches for a piece of fruit. A blue idol with arms symmetrically outstretched atop a pedestal, Gauguin suggested, “indicates the Beyond.” While not planned for integration within a specific architectural setting, Gauguin did intend this decorative painting to “look like a mural,” requesting it be exhibited in a simple white frame. The painting’s yellow corners—one bearing an inscription (now the work’s title) in French, and the other his signature—Gauguin felt, made the painting appear “like a fresco whose corners are spoiled with age, and which is attached to a golden wall.” His smooth paint application and choice of a coarse and heavy burlap support further emphasized the painting’s fresco-like effect.
Despite his descriptions of it, the painting resists easy interpretation and singular narrative, something critics observed when it first went on view in Paris in 1898 at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery, alongside a suite of related paintings. Thadée Natanson noted that the painting—though “obscure” and “difficult to grasp”—“invites us to meditate upon the mystery of our destiny.” Scholars have since put forth numerous literary sources that could have conceivably served as inspiration for the work. The questions posed in the title and indeed in the painting itself are perennial concerns about the human condition that continue to resonate with viewers today: origins, identity, purpose, and destiny.