Brittany has provided a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its natural landscapes and unique quality of light. The women artists who came to draw inspiration from the rich colours and distinctive landscapes of the region have sometimes been overlooked and I hope to highlight some of these pioneering painters here.
Aspiring artists from across Europe, North America and further afield were drawn to Paris like moths to a flame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it was a vibrant cultural centre and one of the very few places that offered quality training and instruction in art. At the time, Paris offered the artist three main options for training and instruction. The most renowned of which was the prestigious state-run institution, the École des Beaux-Arts, which offered tuition-free education under the instruction of some of the world’s leading artists. As you can imagine, entry standards were high and the school could effectively pick and choose only the most talented applicants but this was an avenue denied to women until 1897.
It was therefore necessary for a woman of talent and aspiration to make use of the education offered by the city’s private academies; the best of whom delivered, for a fee, instruction comparable to that offered by the École des Beaux-Arts under the supervision of an accomplished artist. The most well-known of these private academies was the Académie Julian, founded in 1868 initially to prepare students for the examinations at the École des Beaux-Arts. The high quality education and relaxed French language requirements soon resulted in so many applications that the academy eventually opened several sites in the city. Finally, a less formal avenue of tutelage was that offered by professional artists who assessed and critiqued students’ work and provided guidance and mentoring.
While there are isolated examples of successful women artists that predate the middle of the 19th century, it is from around that time that we see an increasing number take their deserved place amongst the ranks of professional artists. However, it is important to remember that aspiring female artists faced considerably more obstacles to overcome than did their male counterparts.
At a time when women were generally denied legal status and independence, the difficulties faced by a woman seeking to be a successful artist were not just institutional but social, economic and familial. A cultured young woman might have been tutored in drawing or water-colouring but these were widely regarded, by men, as an amusement or as an accomplishment that she brought to a marriage.
It is worth remembering that this was also a time when many influential artists and art critics held trenchant and oft-expressed views about women’s ability to even create good art! Even if a woman had succeeded in becoming a recognised artist, societal pressures of the time meant that many women had to give up further aspirations for serious painting upon marriage in order to devote their attentions towards family and raising children.
Securing professional training was but one of many difficulties that impacted more on women than men; independent travelling was often more challenging for women as was advancing one’s career by the cultivation of contacts in the art world, such as exhibition judges, art critics and dealers; the social interactions in the bar or smoky café, then central to a large part of the artistic life in cities such as Paris, was an avenue mostly closed to women.
The marginalisation of women artists lasted long after their acceptance in the artistic world and popular conscience. Sometimes it was especially subtle, a notable example being the incorrect attribution of their works to male artists which was often done wilfully by some art dealers. Sadly, it still happens today and I noted several examples while sourcing some of the images used below.
One of the earliest female artists whose Breton-themed works have survived to us is Louise Becq de Fouquières (1824-1891). Born into a rather well-heeled Parisian family, she was the sister of the painter Alfred De Dreux. Following the death of her elder sister Élise in 1846, she married her widowed brother-in-law, noted man of letters Aimé Napoléon Victor Becq de Fouquières, the following year. De Fouquières was tutored by the renowned artist Isidore Pils who, at one time, shared his Paris workshop with her brother. Strong family connections into the artistic world no doubt helped her work get taken seriously and she first exhibited at the Salon in 1857 and had several other worthy works accepted between then and 1884.
The English artist Emma Brownlow (1832-1905) was amongst the first foreign artists to spend time in Brittany. In the summer of 1863, accompanied by her sister, she spent two months travelling and sketching throughout western Brittany. This would have been a serious commitment for a pair of travellers on a tight budget particularly in the days before the railways had penetrated into Brittany beyond the regional capital, Rennes.
A self-taught artist, she exhibited several times at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London between 1852 and 1867. Brownlow was the daughter of a former foundling and subsequently long-time Secretary of the Foundling Hospital in London and many of her most noted works promote the virtues of that institution. She married a singer in 1867 and is sadly thought to have painted little thereafter.
Unable to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841-1895) who was related to one of France’s most important 18th century painters, Fragonard, had the good fortune to be accepted as a pupil by the influential artist Camille Corot and under his tutelage her style developed significantly. Two of her landscapes were accepted for the Salon of 1864 where she exhibited every year, bar one, until 1873.
In 1874 she helped organise what became known as the first Impressionist Exhibition and no longer tried to exhibit at the Salon. Her marriage to the artist Édouard Manet’s brother later that same year did nothing to halt her artistic output; she exhibited in six of the other seven Impressionist Exhibitions, missing only 1878 after the birth of her daughter but had a hand in the organisation of them all. An important member of the circle of Parisian painters who became known as the Impressionists, Morisot remained a successful and prolific artist until her death from influenza. She painted several times in Brittany as did her sister, Edma, who was also a talented artist but who gave up painting after marriage.
Pittsburgh born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) spent most of her working life as an artist in France. The security of family wealth allowed her to pursue her passion for painting; a passion that was given renewed vigour and direction after seeing a display of pastels by Degas in an art dealer’s window in Paris in 1875. She eventually forged an unlikely friendship with the often difficult and highly opinionated older artist and after the Salon rejected both her entries in 1877 – the first time in several years that she had no works in the Salon – he invited her to exhibit in the third Impressionist Exhibition held in 1879. For a time, the two artists worked closely; Degas introduced Cassatt to pastel while she was instrumental in helping him to sell his paintings and build his reputation in the USA.
Her work was well received and she participated in the Impressionist exhibitions that followed in 1880 and 1881, remaining an active member of the Impressionist circle until the final exhibition in 1886. She is known to have painted in Brittany in the late 1870s but I have been unable to find any copies of those works in the public domain. The disbandment of the Impressionist group saw the emergence of Cassatt’s most creative decade as an artist and by the turn of the century she was widely regarded as the doyen of the American artists in Paris. Unfortunately, severe cataracts caused her to stop painting around 1914 and she increasingly spent time at the family chateau north of Paris in the years leading up to her death.
As was the case with so many talented artists, Anna Sophie Lorenze Petersen (1845-1910) sought to develop her artistic aspirations at a time when women were excluded from most of the world’s best institutions. Denied entry to the Danish Royal Academy for the Fine Arts, she graduated from the Drawing School for Women in Copenhagen in 1880. In 1884, she visited Brittany before studying in Paris in 1885 under the direction of the popular French painter Jean-Jacques Henner. Petersen returned to Denmark is 1890 but struggled to find a meaningful place in the male-dominated art world of the time.
Amélie Helga Lundahl (1850-1914) was orphaned when she was eight and from a young age focused her attention on art. She studied at the Drawing School of the Arts Association in Helsinki from 1872 to 1876 before travelling to Paris where she continued her studies at the Académie Julian under the supervision of French artist Tony Robert-Fleury until 1881. She spent a great part of her twelve years in France in Brittany, particularly in and around Pont Aven, Concarneau and Douarnenez. Returning to her native Finland in 1889, she subsequently spent some time in the short-lived artists’ colony at Önningeby in the Åland Islands.
Lundahl was not the only female Finnish artist in Brittany at this time. Maria Catharina Wiik (1853-1928) was a contemporary of Lundahl’s at the Drawing School of the Arts Association in Helsinki from 1874 to 1875, when she left to continue her artistic studies in Paris. Successfully enrolling at the Académie Julian, she was under the tutelage of Tony Robert-Fleury when Lundahl joined in 1877. Wiik had two spells at the Académie Julian in 1875-76 and 1877-80 and stayed in Pont Aven and Concarneau in the early 1880s. Almost a decade later she spent many years painting in the nascent artists’ colony in St. Ives, Cornwall.
Another Scandinavian woman who drew inspiration for her work from the unique light and landscapes of Brittany was the Swedish painter Emma Hilma Amalia Löwstädt-Chadwick (1855-1932). Enrolling in one of the earliest intakes to the Woman’s Department of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts she left to travel to Brittany in 1879, returning to graduate the following year. Upon graduation, she returned to spend the summer in Brittany accompanied by her friend and fellow Swedish painter, Amanda Sidwall (1844-1892) then studying in Paris.
Löwstädt-Chadwick subsequently continued her artistic studies at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1880 and, like Sidwall three years before her, was tutored by Tony Robert-Fleury. Regarded as a specialist painter of portraits and genre scenes, Löwstädt-Chadwick was often able to capture delightful shades of light in her work and exhibited regularly at the Salon where one of her early works was rather patronisingly praised for showing ‘no sign of hesitation or female fragility’.
Another Swedish contemporary of Sidwall at the Académie Julian between 1874 and 1877 was Anna Nordgren (1847-1916); a painter who primarily focused on rich genre scenes and portraits. She lived in Paris until 1883 when she moved to Brittany, producing several works painted around Concarneau before moving to London in 1885 where she exhibited widely and to much critical acclaim. Nordgren subsequently stayed in London until she returned to Sweden at the turn of the century.
One of the first American women to be elected a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Elizabeth Nourse (1859–1938) came from an Ohian family impoverished by the US Civil War but by 1887 she had saved enough money to travel to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. There, she studied under the well regarded artist Gustave Boulanger and her prodigious talent soon saw one of her paintings accepted for the Salon. Nourse is perhaps best described as a social realist painter and many of her works focus on the lives of the rural poor; her work sold briskly during her lifetime and she earned a decent living as a professional painter – a remarkable achievement in its day. She remained in Paris for the rest of her life and was a frequent visitor to Brittany particularly to the areas around Penmarc’h and Plougastel-Daoulas.
With her mother as chaperon, Elizabeth Adela Forbes (1859-1912) left Canada as a teenager to study at the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) in London in 1873. After further studies at the Art Students League of New York under the American impressionist painter William Merritt Chase and a short spell in Munich, in 1882 she moved to the artists’ colony in Pont Aven, Brittany where she was mentored by painter and printmaker Mortimer Menpes.
In Brittany, she experimented with plein-air painting and convincing social realism canvasses devoid of saccharine sentimentality, many of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. Returning to Great Britain, she lived for a time in St. Ives before settling in Newlyn where, in 1889, she married the painter Stanhope Forbes, a leading figure in the local artists’ colony who had himself spent the summer of 1881 in Brittany. The pair returned to paint in Brittany together in 1891.
In 1899, this artistic couple opened the Newlyn School of Painting which encouraged the techniques of plein-air painting and the study of figure painting directly from the subject. Marriage and motherhood did not dim Forbes’ commitment to her art and she continued to be an active and critically successful artist. In addition to her commitments to the school, she found time to exhibit in scores of London exhibitions, publish a collection of poetry, write and illustrate a book for children and found an arts magazine; an outstanding output that continued up to her untimely death from cancer.
Amongst the first generation of Finnish women to receive a formal education in art, Elin Kleopatra Danielson-Gambogi (1861-1919), had a difficult childhood before enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki in 1876. For a short time after graduation she taught drawing but in 1883 secured a scholarship which allowed her to continue her studies at the Académie Colarossi in Paris under the supervision of Gustave Courtois. The following summer she travelled to Brittany where she stayed near Pont Aven and Concarneau until the spring of 1885. Returning to Finland in 1886, Danielson-Gambogi spent some time at the fledgling artists’ colony at Önningeby in the Åland Islands but continued to visit France regularly until finally settling in Italy in 1898.
One of Finland’s most highly regarded modernist painters Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) began drawing at an early age, starting at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School in Helsinki at just 12 years of age. It was here that she met another aspiring artist and lifelong friend Helena Westermarck (1857-1938), both girls subsequently continued their studies at a private academy run by the painter Adolf von Becker. In 1880, Schjerfbeck travelled to Paris for further studies, initially at the Académie Trélat under the guidance of Léon Bonnat and later at the Académie Colarossi, where she once again studied with Westermarck. She spent the summer of 1881 in Pont Aven where she honed her skills as a realist plein-air painter and returned again with Westermarck for several months in 1884.
The artists’ colony in St. Ives was Schjerfbeck’s home for a few months in 1887 before she returned to Finland and taught at her alma mater but she was forced to relinquish her position due to poor health and the need to care for her ailing mother; an artistic hiatus that lasted a decade. She continued to paint and exhibit between the world wars and died in Sweden where she had fled after the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. Sadly, Westermarck abandoned painting after contracting tuberculosis in Paris in 1884 and devoted herself to writing.
Frances Mary Hodgkins (1869-1947) has left a legacy of work that merits her inclusion in any debate regarding New Zealand’s leading artists. Arriving in London in 1901, she studied at the City of London Polytechnic under the painter Ernest Borough-Johnson and joined a summer school in Normandy led by Newlyn School artist Norman Garstin. Attracted to his plein-air approach, Hodgkins attended another of Garstin’s summer schools in Brittany the following year and in 1904 she became the first New Zealand artist to be exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1908 she moved to Paris where two years later she joined the Académie Colarossi as its first female tutor. One of her first pupils was the Canadian artist Emily Carr who also enrolled for the summer school that Hodgkins led in Concarneau in 1911. Hodgkins continued to teach in Paris and Brittany until the outbreak of the First World War when she left for England and settled, for a time, in St. Ives. Post-war, her painting style evolved from the artistic techniques of the Impressionists and plein-air schools into a confident modernist approach.
In 1890, Emily Carr (1871-1945) left Vancouver Island to pursue her artistic aspirations with a course of study at the San Francisco Art Institute. Further studies followed at the Westminster School of Art in 1899, followed by a lengthy stay at the artists’ colony in St. Ives before she returned to Canada in 1905. In 1910, she arrived in Paris where she attended the Académie Colarossi under the supervision of Frances Hodgkins. In early 1911, Carr moved-in with the expatriate English modernist artist Phelan Gibb and his wife and travelled with them to a modest hotel near Plestin-les-Grèves on the north coast of Brittany where they took rooms for the season.
Here, Gibb’s enthusiasm for capturing the vitality of space and form, rather than simply rendering a faithful depiction, had a significant influence on her. It was thus a profoundly different artist that traversed Brittany to join Mary Hodgkins at the south coast town of Concarneau in late summer. Returning to British Colombia in 1912, Carr found no appetite for her style of painting and painted little over the next two decades but became revitalised towards the end of the 1920s, taking up painting with renewed passion.
Elisabeth Sonrel (1874-1953) was born into a family of keen amateur painters and her father and uncle both provided the aspiring artist with early encouragement and guidance. In 1891 she left her native Tours to attend the Académie Julian in Paris where she was tutored by the accomplished French artist Jules Lefebvre. One of her early works was chosen for exhibition at the Salon of 1893; a distinction that she would maintain regularly up to the Second World War. A regular visitor to Brittany, Sonrel painted widely across the region, not only around the coastal towns of Concarneau, Loctudy, Plougastel and Pont l’Abbé but also inland around Paimpont and Le Faouët. Heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, she is remembered today as one of France’s leading exponents of the Art Nouveau style.
The American painter Martha Walter (1875-1976) studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William Merritt Chase. While there, she secured a scholarship that allowed her to travel to Europe and when in Paris in 1904 she enrolled into the newly opened Académie de la Grande Chaumière where she was tutored by Lucien Simon, an artist renowned for his love of painting in Brittany, before transferring to the Académie Julian. Walter stayed in Europe until the outbreak of the First World War and became known for her bold, dashing brushstrokes, her love of plein-air painting of everyday scenes saw her visit many areas of Brittany during her time in France; from Saint-Malo in the north east to Quimper in the south west.
Gwendolen Mary John (1876-1939) is perhaps as acclaimed today as her younger brother, the Welsh Post-Impressionist artist Augustus John, was during their lifetime. In 1895 she moved to London and joined her brother in studies at the Slade School of Fine Art where her talent was widely acknowledged. After graduation she settled in Paris and pursued her artistic studies at the Académie Carmen under the supervision of James McNeill Whistler. After returning to London for a few years, she returned permanently to France in 1904. To make ends meet, she earned a living as an artist’s model, posing for the sculptor Auguste Rodin; the two were lovers for the next decade or so. Between 1914 and 1925 she devoted her life to painting and religion and while she found critical success and exhibited many times at the Salon d’Automne, financial security was always tenuous. John has been described as a very reclusive talent; deeply introspective, she seems to have had an obsessive trait that manifested itself in her love-life and in her painting, often painting the same subject – usually a solitary female figure – repeatedly, exploring and developing slight variations in each work.
John visited Brittany many times and would frequently sketch figure-studies in chalk and wash. Most of her models are anonymous and perhaps this is deliberate as John’s work so often lacks any specific detail that the traditional term portrait is perhaps a misnomer; they are studies in light and contrast, tone and colour. Although she never dated her work, we know that the drawing above is of a girl from the village of Pléneuf on Brittany’s north coast where John lived between August 1918 and September 1919 and where she had hoped to buy an old manoir near the sea. John collapsed and died on a visit to Dieppe; unrecognised and without luggage, she was buried in a pauper’s grave. As with her work, her grave fell into obscurity, only being re-discovered relatively recently.
A native of the Breton town of Morlaix, Mary Piriou (1881-1956) initially studied art in Brest before moving to Paris in 1902 to enrol in the Académie Julian where she was supervised by Lucien Simon. After further studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, her application to attend the École des Beaux-Arts was rejected despite her achieving grades higher than her male competitors. She returned to Brittany in 1909, settling in Pont Aven and developing a style that contained elements of both Impressionist and Synthetist techniques that were well received; she was a regular exhibitor at many of the leading salons between 1908 and 1930.
In 1928, she was commissioned to decorate the dining room of a grand hotel in the resort town of Saint-Cast on Brittany’s north coast. She considered the resulting work, a massive (almost 6m x 2m) painting of a procession during the pardon at Plougastel to be one of her most significant achievements. She stayed in Saint-Cast running summer schools for artists until the Second World War when, due to restrictions on accessing the coast, she moved her school to Dinan.
One of the leading female Surrealists, the Czech artist Marie Čermínová (1902-1980) is better known by her pseudonym Toyen. She became a key member of the Czech avant-garde movement after graduating from the School of Decorative Arts in Prague in 1922 and first exhibited in Paris in 1925. Returning to Prague in 1930, she was one of the founding members of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a close lifelong friendship. A frequent visitor to France, she settled there permanently in 1947 and visited Brittany several times, being particularly drawn to the west coast. Through Breton, Toyen was at the heart of the post-war activities of the Surrealists and was deeply affected by the dissolution of the Surrealist Group in 1969 and rarely seen in public thereafter.
The Parisian Odette Pauvert (1903-1966) was born into a family of artists and was initially tutored by her mother before gaining entrance to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1921 where she studied under the painter Ferdinand Humbert. Her talent brought her speedy recognition and she won several major prizes, most notably in 1925 when she became the first woman to win the coveted Grand Prix de Rome for painting; the votes in her favour from the jury were unanimous save from two members who still clung to the belief that women had no right to such an accolade! Pauvert painted several times in Brittany but as an example of her work, I have chosen a massive painting she executed in 1935 that was long thought lost but turned-up during an inventory of the museum in the small Breton town of Locranon in 2012. In a neglected part of the small museum’s stock room, the work was discovered folded-up and torn with a large portion of the canvas completely missing. Thankfully, the town’s mayor was able to get the painting classified as a Historic Monument; an act that made funding available for the restoration of this important work.
Of necessity, this post highlights just a few of the many female artists who have worked in Brittany and found artistic inspiration there. Other female artists who deserve serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany and whose work is worth exploring include: Caroline Espinet (1844-1910); Anna Boch (1848-1936); Anna Gardell-Ericson (1853-1939); Emma Herland (1855-1947); Andrée Lavieille (1887-1960); Yvonne Jean-Haffen (1895-1993); Marie-Renée Chevalier-Kervernn (1902-1987) and Germaine Gardey (1904-1995).
Whether you appreciate the talents of these artists or not, you cannot but admire their spirit and determination to succeed, against the odds, and excel in their art.