Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)

Catalogue Raisonné

Wildenstein 561


139.1 x 374.6 cm (54 3/4 x 147 1/2 in.) Framed: 171.5 x 406.4 x 8.9 cm (67 1/2 x 160 x 3 1/2 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Sidney and Esther Rabb Gallery (Gallery 255)





In 1891, Gauguin left France for Tahiti, seeking in the South Seas a society that was simpler and more elemental than that of his homeland. In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology. He considered this work—created in 1897, at a time of great personal crisis—to be his masterpiece and the summation of his ideas. Gauguin’s letters suggest that the fresco-like painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant. He describes the various figures as pondering the questions of human existence given in the title; the blue idol represents “the Beyond.” The old woman at the far left, “close to death,” accepts her fate with resignation.


Upper left: D'ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous; Upper right: P. Gauguin / 1897


1898, sent by the artist in Tahiti to Georges Daniel de Monfreid (b. 1856 - d. 1929), Paris; consigned by Monfreid and his agent to Ambroise Vollard (b. 1867 - d. 1939), Paris [see note 1]; 1901, sold by Vollard to Gabriel Frizeau (b. 1870 - d. 1938), Bordeaux [see note 2]; probably 1913, sold by Frizeau to the Galérie Barbazanges, Paris; before 1920, sold by Barbazanges to J. B. Stang, Oslo [see note 3]; 1935, probably sold by Stang to or through Alfred Gold, Berlin and Paris [see note 4]. 1936, Marie Harriman Gallery, New York [see note 5]; 1936, sold by the Harriman Gallery to the MFA for $80,000. (Accession Date: April 16, 1936)

[1] The painting was exhibited at the Galerie Ambroise Vollard, November 17 - December 10, 1898.

[2] On Frizeau's acquisition and sale of the painting, see Claire Frêches-Thory, "Le premier acheteur d'Où venons-nous? Le collectionneur bordelais, Gabriel Frizeau (1870 - 1938) et ses rapports avec Gauguin," in Rencontres Gauguin à Tahiti: actes du colloque 20 et 21 juin 1989 (Papeete, 1989), pp. 48 - 56. The Galérie Barbazanges exhibited the painting in 1914.

[3] The Galérie Barbazanges sought to buy the painting back from Stang in 1920; see Frêches-Thory (as above, n. 2), p. 51.

[4] A letter of February 1, 1935 to the dealer Germain Seligmann, held by the Archives of American Art (Seligmann papers, box 426), states that the dealer Alfred Gold said the painting was still the property of Stang ("la grand Gauguin était toujours la proprieté de Stang") and that it would be included in the forthcoming Brussels exhibition. The writer has not been identified. Later that year, Gold lent the painting to the exhibition "L'impressionisme," Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels, June 15 - September 29, 1935, cat. no. 28. Gold purchased other works from the Stang collection, and almost certainly acquired this painting directly from him. As early as 1932, Gold acted as Stang's representative in lending the painting to the Kunsthaus, Zürich (February 20 - March 20, 1932); at the end of the loan period, the painting was sent to Paris.

[5] A letter from the supervisor of Museum Education at the MFA (April 21, 1936) states that Marie Harriman acquired the painting in Paris. It was exhibited at her New York gallery, April 22 - May 9, 1936.

Credit Line

Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund