In December, 1897, Gauguin decided to kill himself. He was sick and miserable, without enough money for medical treatment, he was in debt and abandoned by those who owed him money. His tropical paradise had failed. He wished, before dying, to paint one great, last testamentary picture, and summoning all his strength in a single burst of energy he painted this canvas -- his largest. The attempt at suicide failed, apparently through an overdose of the arsenic he took, and so in later letters, we have his own comments upon the picture and its genesis:
"It is a canvas about five feet by twelve. The two upper corners are chrome yellow, with an inscription on the left, and my name on the right, like a fresco on a golden wall with its corners damaged.
"To the right, below, a sleeping baby and three seated women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to each other. An enormous crouching figure which intentionally violates the perspective, raises its arm in the air and looks in astonishment at these two people who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the center is picking fruit. Two cats near a child. A white goat. An idol, both arms mysteriously and rhythmically raised, seems to indicate the Beyond. A crouching girl seems to listen to the idol. Lastly, an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts. She completes the story. At her feet a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claw [sic], represents a futility of words.
"The setting is the bank of a stream in the woods. In the background the ocean, and beyond the mountains of a neighboring island. In spite of changes of tone, the landscape is blue and Veronese green from one end to the other. The naked figures stand out against it in bold orange.
"If anyone said to the students competing for the Rome Prize at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the picture you must paint is to represent Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? what would they do? I have finished a philosophical work on this theme, comparable to the Gospels. I think it is good."