Paul Gauguin is the famous French artist of the late 19th century. A sailor, then a stockbroker, in 1885 Gauguin left his wife and five children to take up life as an artist. He spent much time overseas, before spending his final years in poverty, disease and despair in Tahiti. So deep was his despair that in 1897 Gaugin attempted suicide. He failed and lived for another five years. It was during this time in Tahiti that Gauguin painted his masterpiece, a three paneled work entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The first panel shows three women and a child, representing the beginning of life – “Where do we come from?”. The middle panel shows the daily existence of young adults – “What are we?”. The third panel shows an old woman approaching death – “Where are we going?”
The three questions are written in small print in the bottom corner of the painting. They are the questions Gauguin wished to answer, the universal human questions of us all: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Source: Information on Gauguin and the painting from encyclopedia.com and mfa.org (website of Boston Museum of Fine Art where the painting hangs).