This portrait of Gauguin was in all likelihood inspired by the artist's death in the Marquesas Islands on May 8, 1903. That November, Redon published an article in praise of the "refined, savage, grandiose and delicate" Gauguin. For the only time in his work, he devoted several tributes to the painter, whom he likely met in 1886.
During the 1890s, the two artists were hailed as masters of symbolism, of the art of suggestion.
Here Gauguin's dark profile stands out against a medallion in the manner of funerary reliefs or ancient medals. Redon has made no attempt to portray a likeness, being content to feature the "Inca" nose and long hair that Gauguin was so proud of.
He saw in them the sign of his Peruvian bloodline, that part of the "savage" that he struggled tirelessly to become.
Neither time nor suffering leave any mark on this juvenile, androgynous countenance, which is surrounded by "dream flowers". The features are barely visible, being seen—as it were—against the light, bathing in mystery a profile that seems to be about to disappear. The golden ground heightens the sacred, precious character of what is a gloriously evanescent apparition rather than a flesh-and-blood face.
Thus, far from conventional solemnity, with this apotheosis of a glorified friend, Redon also celebrates their shared belief in the transcendence of art.