In the latter part of the 19th century a small picturesque village on the south coast of Brittany between Concarneau and Quimperle became a home for artists from across the world seeking to draw inspiration from the rich colours and distinctive landscapes of a region then still relatively unknown.
The arrival of the railway, in 1862, opened-up the remote west of Brittany to travellers and artists keen to explore this wild periphery of France. One of the first artists to be seduced by the region’s charms was the American, Henry Bacon (1839-1912), then studying in Paris. In 1864 he spent much of the summer in the village of Pont-Aven and was so taken by its charms that he encouraged fellow artists Robert Wylie (1839-1877) and Charles Way to return with him the following year. With a growing reputation amongst the young artistic crowd, more and more artists sought to spend their summers in Pont-Aven; taking advantage of the fine scenery and the lower cost of living while the Paris studios were closed for the summer.
The variety of natural light, the diverse coastal and pastoral landscapes along with the Bretons themselves with their customs, superstitions and beliefs were a big draw for artists, particularly landscape artists and impressionist painters. Soon, the village would be a temporary home to artists from the USA, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, France, Great Britain and Ireland. Not all artists were seasonal visitors; some stayed for a season while others, such as Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895), stayed for several years; Robert Wylie lived in Pont-Aven for the eleven years prior to his death there in 1877.
There was thus a well-established artist colony in Pont-Aven when, in the summer of 1886, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) made his first visit to the area. Disillusioned with impressionist painting, Gauguin became revitalised during his spell in southern Brittany, he noted: “I love Brittany; I find wildness and primitiveness there. When my wooden shoes ring on this granite, I hear the muffled, dull and powerful tone which I try to achieve in painting.” When he returned for an extended stay in 1888-89 he was no longer content to reproduce reality but eager to explore the expression of sensations and emotions through painting. Shortly after his arrival in Brittany, Gauguin wrote to friend and fellow artist, Émile Schuffenecker: “Don’t copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, take art from it and concentrate more on creating than on the outcome.“
Other artists in search of fresh ideas, including Émile Bernard (1868-1941) who had first encountered Gauguin in Pont-Aven in 1886, are drawn to Gauguin and his new thoughts on art. Quite quickly, a new post-impressionist concept, subsequently known as synthetism, was developed. This was characterised by a focus on colour as an emotional expression rather than as a portrayal of reality, simply drawn contours and two-dimensional forms where detail and perspective were unimportant. The boundaries between synthetism and the style most attributed to Bernard, cloisonnism, are so minimal that the two names are often used interchangeably but the latter style is noted for the thick black outlines that surround forms and large swathes of vibrant colour in the composition. The Pont-Aven style of painting was therefore distinguishing itself as something radically different from the norm.
There is some controversy surrounding which artist initiated this new Pont-Aven style of painting; the well-known and well-established Gauguin took the credit but the unknown 20 year old Bernard considered the tribute rightfully his. Whatever the truth, the artists collaborated closely for a time and 1888 was a breakthrough year for them both; a year that they revolutionised contemporary art.
In that year, Bernard produced Breton Women in the Meadow; a striking composition featuring a background of an almost incandescent green which serves to emphasise the figures of the women. A little later in the year, Gauguin completed his now famous work, Vision after the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) in which he depicted the Biblical struggle of the prophet and the angel as a vision shared by a group of Breton women looking down upon a world where the grass is red.
It was not until 1893 that the term “Pont-Aven School” started to be used by critics and dealers but this neat catch-all encompasses a broad range of artists with markedly differing styles, such as Charles Filiger (1863-1928), Meijer de Haan, Henry Moret, Maxime Maufra and Paul Sérusier amongst others.
However, we can identify some principles common to the artists of the Pont-Aven School. They generally opted for the representation of an almost primitive Brittany, far from urban or refined motifs. They did not apply themselves to accurate depictions of reality, choosing instead to express emotions and imagination. Many of these artists also experienced art as a spiritual journey and drew inspiration from Brittany’s rich religious and cultural heritage. It was, according to Charles Filiger, a land of magic.
A few of the most well-known examples of the celebrated works of the Pont-Aven group during this time include: The Talisman by Sérusier, The Yellow Christ by Gauguin, The Landscape at Pouldu by Filiger and Pont-Aven Under A Red Sky by Maufra.
Frustrated by the increased numbers of tourists, partly drawn to visit Pont-Aven due to his notoriety, Gauguin left for a new billet in the summer of 1889, settling just 14 miles (22km) along the coast at Le Pouldu where he was subsequently joined by Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) and others. It was here that Gauguin profoundly influenced the young Sérusier who recounted one discussion with Gauguin whilst painting: “What colour do you see in these trees?” asked Gauguin. “They are yellow,” replied Sérusier. “Well, put on yellow. And this shadow?“; “Rather blue“; “So, don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible. What about those red leaves? Put some vermilion.”
Gauguin left La Pouldu in November 1890, leaving for Tahiti a few months later, but he returned for the summer of 1894 before finally quitting France for good. His time in Brittany may only have encapsulated a few years but it was a productive one; seeing the creation of well over a hundred new paintings and the art world turned upon its head.
Impressed by his experiences in La Pouldu, Sérusier regularly returned to Brittany before settling in Châteauneuf-du-Faou in 1893 when he declared “I feel more and more attracted by Brittany, my true country since I was born there of the spirit“. He lived in central Brittany until his death in 1927 and became renowned for his scenes of rural life and his religious paintings and frescos.
Charles Filiger first visited Pont-Aven in 1888, returning each summer before settling permanently in La Poludu in 1890 but after Gauguin’s departure became increasingly isolated from the remaining group of artists. Gauguin visited him during his return to Brittany in 1894 and found a man struggling with alcoholism. Filigier’s work was regularly exhibited in Paris but the removal of a monthly stipend from his patron put the artist in dire straits; he left La Pouldu in 1905 and after a spell in an asylum, settled at an inn in Gouarec for many years before eventually settling at another in Plougastel-Daoulas in 1915. He was found one winter’s day on the street with his writs slashed and died shortly thereafter on 11 January 1928. Thankfully, his corpus of work was re-discovered in the early 1990s and this talented artist has now been rescued from oblivion.
It was a visit to Pont-Aven in 1900 that inspired André Jolly (1882-1969) to abandon his studies and his father’s hopes to take over the family business and become a painter. He moved there permanently in 1904, declaring that the area boasted “a thousand patterns of landscapes, in all seasons.” Jolly produced a large number of portraits, rural scenes, landscapes and still-lives with a vibrant intensity, delineating his subjects with clear lines.
The artist colony of Pont-Aven survived until the outbreak of WW1 and saw a brief resurgence in the 1920s but never recaptured its late 19th century prestige. At one time of another, other towns in Brittany also hosted small artist colonies, such as Camaret, Concarneau, Douarnenez and Pont-Croix although these were relatively modest and short-lived groupings compared to Pont-Aven. The work of Henri Barnoin (1882–1940), who lived in Concarneau for many years, is particularly fine with its focus on some of the iconic scenes of Brittany.
The neo-impressionist painter Paul Signac (1863-1935) was not enamoured with Pont-Aven, describing it as “a ridiculous country of small corners with waterfalls for English watercolourists. A funny nest for pictorial symbolism.” He was, however, captivated by Brittany and spent half a dozen summers there, taking inspiration from the area around Saint-Briac, Saint-Cast and other ports and harbours such as Lézardrieux that he would often visit from his boat.
Indeed, many locations across northern Brittany have long been popular with artists such as Camille Corot (1796-1875), John Sargent (1856-1925) and Jean-Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940).
The influential Maurice Denis (1870-1943) drew inspiration from the colours and striking forms found in the Ploumanac’h region and even bought a property in the then small fishing village of Perros-Guirec in 1898.
In 1924, Marc Chagall (1887-1985) spent the summer just a few miles along the coast on the Île-de-Bréhat.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) spent three summers in Brittany in the 1920s and produced dozens of paintings during his stays at the up-market seaside resort of Dinard, being particularly drawn to the theme of women playing on the town’s beaches. As you can see, his style changed markedly between 1922 and 1928 when such abstract forms were, for the time, revolutionary.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) spent two summers on the north coast of Brittany, producing over a dozen canvasses during his visits and while Renoir was first painting on the north coast, Claude Monet (1840-1926) was working on the island of Belle-Île off Brittany’s southern coast, where he produced almost forty paintings that explored water and light. Fascinated by the wild landscape, Monet sought to capture the atmospheric effects of a storm at sea.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) went there to paint in 1895 but was so overwhelmed by the colours that he came away after ten days without painting anything. He subsequently found the softer hues he was seeking further west along the Breton coast and returned to paint in Brittany several times.
Following these well-trodden footsteps, this part of Brittany was also visited and explored on canvas by renowned artists as diverse in style as Charles Cottet, Jean Hélion, Henry Rivière, Marcel Gromaire, Victor Vasarely and Lucien Simon (1861-1945) who maintained a summer house in south west Brittany.
Some other painters fascinated by the riches of Brittany who, through their art, expressed their love of the region include naturalist painters such as Jules Breton (1827-1906) and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929).
The artist often proclaimed as the father of the renowned Newlyn School, Stanhope Forbes (1857–1947) spent the summer of 1881 in Brittany and produced some fine work whilst here.
Similarly, the versatile Czech artist Tavík František Šimon (1877-1942) visited Brittany several times in the years preceding WW1.
There are, of course, countless Breton painters whose work has been inspired by the landscapes, seascapes, heritage and folklore of their region. I will highlight a mere half a dozen whose accomplished work deserves serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany.
Rostrenen born Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) was perhaps the first artist to produce quality, objective drawings of everyday peasant life in Brittany. A noted painter, much of his work was engraved and published posthumously between 1835-39, providing subjects and motifs subsequently explored by other artists.
The landscape artist from Nantes, Prosper Barbot (1798-1877), is now perhaps better known for his images of Italy and North Africa but he painted this atmospheric masterpiece before heading to sunnier climes.
Jean-Édouard Dargent (1824-1899), also known as Yan’ Dargent, was born in Saint-Servais; a skilled and prodigious book illustrator whose wonderful oil paintings, whether created from the imagination or reality, deliver an impact on the viewer. He also painted frescos in many Breton churches and cathedrals which can still be viewed today. Before his death he had asked to be buried in the town of his birth and that his skull be placed in the ossuary alongside the bones of his mother and grandparents. By law, disinterment could only take place five years after burial and in October 1907, with full ecclesiastical approval, his body was exhumed. However, the body was not sufficiently decomposed and the supervising abbot had to cut the head off himself; leading to a legal dispute with Dargent’s surviving relatives.
Born in Châteaugiron in the east of Brittany, Jules Ronsin (1867-1937) was a widely exhibited artist who spent most of his working life in and around the city of Rennes.
Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958) was a prolific artist from Lamballe who was not just an accomplished painter but also a skilled engraver, sculptor, illustrator and designer; he even collaborated with the renowned Henriot pottery in Quimper as a decorator. His work is highly praised for its striking and authentic depiction of daily life in Brittany in the first half of the 20th century.
A wonderful example of how artistic influences inter-weave can be seen with Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) from Loudeac. Malivel was one of the founders of Seiz Breur (the Seven Brothers), a movement that revolutionised Breton arts and crafts between the two World Wars. Multi-talented, she was a skilled designer of furniture, upholstery and ceramics but is perhaps best known for her skills as a woodcut engraver and illustrator where she took inspiration from Celtic art and the synthetism of Gauguin, who himself had been influenced by the naïve style of English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) whose drawings in an 1880 guidebook to Brittany were well regarded by the artists of Pont-Aven.
Simone Le Moigne (1911-2001), from Magoar, did not seriously start painting until she was almost sixty years old but left a legacy of several hundred naïve, tender paintings that shine a light on life and rural society in central Brittany between the World Wars; a rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing when she began to paint in the 1960s.
For over two centuries, Brittany has been a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its landscapes and unique quality of light. Today, it remains one of the regions of France most visited by painters and art lovers; you can discover the same magical places and see the same vistas that inspired so many famous artists during their time in Brittany. Drop into one of the many quality fine art museums across Brittany, such as those in Brest, Landerneau, Pont-Aven, Quimper, Rennes or Vannes and admire the work of some of these iconic artists for yourself.