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Brittany and the struggle for American Independence

The terms of the treaties that concluded the complex conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) were regarded as something of a national humiliation for the kingdom of France which saw its global empire shorn of the greater part of its colonial possessions in what are now the USA, Canada and India. The fractious times were not long in providing the kingdom with an occasion to exact a measure of revenge; the opportunity being provided by the unrest developing in the British colonies in North America, partly as a result of taxation imposed to pay for the massive costs of the Seven Year’s War.

Simmering unrest and isolated outbreaks of lawlessness and rebellion inexorably led to armed conflict in 1775 and the following year saw the colonies, excluding East Florida and West Florida, supplant the authority of the crown with local autonomous powers and their political assemblies vote for independence from Great Britain. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation took a little longer to be agreed before being approved on 15 November 1777 and eventually coming into force on 1 March 1781.

One of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and former representative of Pennsylvania in London was the noted polymath Benjamin Franklin; one of the key figures of the 18th century and a man whose wide-ranging accomplishments it would be impossible to do justice to in a few sentences. In September 1776, Franklin’s diplomatic skills saw him selected by the Continental Congress to plead their case for support to the court of King Louis XVI.

British and French colonies in North America
North America before the Seven Years’ War

While France had tacitly endorsed the sale of arms, ammunition and gunpowder to the separationists from the outbreak of the revolution, it was reluctant to enter into another war with Great Britain while there remained a strong prospect that the rebellion could be quelled. By the summer of 1776, significant amounts of arms and material had been supplied to the American forces thanks, in part, to the efforts of Silas Deane, the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France. However, more money and material were needed for the war effort and Deane’s position was formalised and strengthened by the appointment of Franklin and Arthur Lee to the official American delegation to the French kingdom.

On 4 December 1776, Franklin arrived in France, disembarking at the small Breton port of Auray; strong headwinds having forced his ship to abandon its original destination, the major Breton city of Nantes. He stayed a few days in the town, recovering his strength after almost 40 days at sea and noting sight of ‘the most beautiful woman’ he had ever seen, before continuing his onward journey by road to Vannes, Nantes and thence to Paris. Here, efforts to negotiate and secure a formal alliance and treaty were begun in earnest.

Franklin’s august reputation saw him widely feted in Parisian high society but although his personal achievements were celebrated, diplomatic success was slow in coming; a position that changed rapidly following news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. Confident that an American victory in the war was indeed possible, France now formally aligned itself to the independence of the American states and on 6 February 1778 signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with Franklin and the other American delegates. The impact of the French assistance guaranteed under these agreements was crucial to the eventual outcome of the American War for Independence.

Benjamin Franklin in France

A discussion about the importance of the French intervention in the war or the results of Arthur Lee’s activities in Spain and John Adams’ efforts in the Netherlands, although of considerable interest, are outside the scope of this post focused on the Breton connections with the conflict, of which there are many.

The Breton port of Nantes was one of the most active channels used for the distribution of military aid to America. It was also here that John Paul Jones, aboard his ship, the USS Ranger, brought news of the victory at Saratoga on 2 December 1777 having captured two British vessels en route. Following the signing of the Treaty of Alliance, Jones left Nantes and on 14 February came across the squadron of Breton nobleman, Commander La Motte-Picquet, laying at anchor in the Bay of Quiberon off Brittany’s southern coast in preparation for a convoy run to North America. This was the scene of the very first salute of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ by a foreign vessel when La Motte-Picquet’s flagship fired a 9-gun salute in response to the USS Ranger’s 13-gun greeting. La Motte-Picquet also featured in the first major naval engagement of the war, when a French fleet of 45 ships fought an inconclusive battle with 36 British vessels off the Breton island of Ouessant on 27 July 1778. The area was also the scene of another Anglo-French sea battle in December 1781 and again in April 1782.

However, it was the Breton port of Brest that served as Jones’ base for his raids into British waters during 1778; a time of high adventure aboard the USS Ranger which in addition to harassing coastal traders, was involved in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk as well as an assault on the port of Whitehaven (a previous home port of Jones) before capturing the British sloop, HMS Drake. In June 1779, Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 42-gun vessel gifted to the Continental Navy. In August, together with a small fleet, the USS Bonhomme Richard sailed for northern Britain to carry out diversionary raids in support of the planned Franco-Spanish invasion of southern England. Although the invasion failed to materialise, Jones’ fleet captured several vessels including the frigate HMS Serapis during their fighting circumnavigation of the British Isles.

As the largest military port in France, Brest played a key role in the deployment of the French forces that participated in offensive operations in North America; the fleets of Admirals d’Estaing, La Motte-Picquet, de Suffren and the Comte de Grasse all operated from the city. The majority of the 32,000 men of France’s Royal Navy who fought in direct support of the American Revolution were mustered here. Similarly, the bulk of the 12,000 or so French troops who served in America embarked from this thriving city on the west coast of Brittany.

Anglo-French naval battle during the war of American Independenc

Other Breton ports also played their part, with privateering ships regularly striking against British vessels from the harbour towns of Saint-Malo and Morlaix in particular. One of the most notable being Charles Cornic from the northern port of Morlaix who came from a family of corsairs and was an experienced mariner by the time he saw his first action towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747. The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War saw him command a small privateer vessel with some success; a distinction which saw him given the captaincy of a 30-gun frigate in 1758 and whose masterful handling, in combat off the Breton coast, saw Cornic further distinguish himself. In 1778, Cornic returned to service as a privateer, harassing British merchantmen and capturing many vessels during his years roaming the Atlantic Ocean until the declaration of peace in 1783.

Another naval officer from Morlaix, Nicolas Anthon, also spent much of the war as an active and successful privateer. The American sailor Nathaniel Fanning, who had previously served as a Midshipman under Jones aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, served as Anthon’s Second-in-Command during some of his deadly raids in 1781 and 1782. Another naval officer who sailed a privateering vessel out of Morlaix was the future Minister of the Navy and Colonies, Jean Dalbarade, who captained a frigate there in 1779 before shifting his home port to Saint-Malo later in the war, after he had been freed in an exchange of prisoners with the British. He too was a successful privateer, capturing a score of prizes in 1780 alone.

The role of the wealthy French aristocrat, the Marquis de La Fayette, in the American War for Independence is well-known. Volunteering – unpaid – into the Continental Army in April 1777, he was appointed major-general at just 19 years of age. In January 1779 he returned to France to lobby for additional resources for the American cause and pushed for an invasion of Great Britain. Although more likely down to broader French strategy rather than La Fayette’s lobbying, an additional French expeditionary force of almost 6000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau was readied for America; reaching there some months after La Fayette’s own return in April 1780. Buoyed by the arrival of this latest French force, La Fayette, at Washington’s urging, wrote to the French authorities urgently seeking additional men and material and was rewarded with the arrival of a French fleet.

Washington and Lafayette

Following his participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, La Fayette returned to France, in glory, in 1782 but the costs he had incurred in waging war in the Americas required the liquidation of many of his assets and he therefore sold some of his estates in central Brittany where his family held extensive landholdings. He subsequently enjoyed a troubled relationship with the post-revolutionary government of France who, for a time, confiscated his remaining lands in Brittany.

While La Fayette remains the most famous of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for American independence, many Bretons, both notable and anonymous made important contributions to the cause.  While history might remember the contributions made by the noted Breton cavalry officer the Marquis de la Rouërie or the Breton naval officer de Beauverger, it is sobering to reflect that a significant proportion of the French naval forces that engaged the British on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were from Brittany and records show that over 1,300 Breton sailors died in fighting for the American cause between 1778 and 1783.

With the signing of the peace agreement in September 1783, many seasoned campaigners returned to France influenced by the ideals of freedom and democracy espoused by their American companions; contagious ideas that would not take long to spread throughout the kingdom.

Women Artists in Brittany

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.

Atelier at the Académie Julian - Brittany - Artists
Marie Bashkirtseff : An Atelier at the Académie Julian in 1881

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.

Fouquières Young Breton Woman - Brittany - Artists
Louise Becq de Fouquières : Young Breton Woman from Fouesnant (1869)

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.

Emma Brownlow - Brittany - Artists
Emma Brownlow : Charwoman’s Daughter Feeding Chickens (1872)

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.

Morisot - Brittany - Artists
Berthe Morisot : A Lady at her Toilette (c1877)

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.

Cassatt - Brittany - Artists
Mary Cassatt : Maternal Caress (1896)

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.

Petersen - Brittany - Artists
Anna Petersen : Breton Girl Looking After Plants in a Hothouse (1884)

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.

Lundahl - Brittany - Artists
Amélie Lundahl : A Girl from Brittany (1880)

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.

Maria Wiik - In the Church - Brittany - Artists
Maria Wiik : In the Church (1884)

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’.

Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick - Off to Sea - Brittany - Artists
Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick : Off to Sea (c1880)

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.

Anna Nordgren - A Farmer at the Beach - Brittany - Artists
Anna Nordgren : A Farmer at the Beach (1880)

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.

Nourse  Brittany - Artists
Elizabeth Nourse : Coming Home From Church (1900)
Elizabeth Forbes - Brittany - Artists
Elizabeth Forbes : A Breton Girl, Louise (c1882)

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.

Forbes - Brittany - Artists
Elizabeth Forbes : Medieval Woodland Scene (1885)

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.

Elin Danielson-Gambogi - Young Mother - Brittany - Artists
Elin Danielson-Gambogi : Young Mother (1885)

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.

Helene Schjerfbeck - Funeral in Brittany - Brittany - Artists
Helene Schjerfbeck : Funeral in Brittany (1884)

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.

Frances Hodgkins - Rue de L'Horloge - Brittany - Artists
Frances Hodgkins : Rue de L’Horloge (1902)

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.

Emily Carr - Autumn in France - Brittany - Artists
Emily Carr : Autumn in France (1911)

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.

Elizabeth Sonrel - Brittany - Artists
Elisabeth Sonrel : The Forest of Brocéliande (c1900)

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.

Martha Walter - The Pardon of Saint Anne at La Palud - Brittany - Artists
Martha Walter : The Pardon of Saint Anne at La Palud (1923)

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.

Gwen John - Study of a Child - Brittany - Artists - Rodin
Gwen John : Study of a Child (c1919) ©Tate

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.

Mary Piriou - Procession in Plougastel - Brittany - Artists
Mary Piriou : Procession in Plougastel (1929)

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.

Toyen - Breton - Surrealist - Brittany - Artists
Toyen : A Portrait of Breton (1950)

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.

Odette Pauvert - The Invocation to Notre Dame des Flots - Brittany - Artists
Odette Pauvert : The Invocation to Notre Dame des Flots (1935)

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.

Bookish Browsings in Brittany

It is not only artists that have taken inspiration from the rich landscapes and unique culture of Brittany; generations of writers and poets have also been keenly stimulated by this enchanting region of France.

Any mention of books and Brittany must surely start with Jules Verne (1828-1905); one of the world’s most published authors and a native of the Breton port of Nantes. The publication of his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in 1863 heralded the start of a wonderfully productive decade, marking the appearance of, amongst others; Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) and Mysterious Island (1869). English translations of Verne’s work first became available in 1867 and the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days in book form in 1873 propelled the author from national icon to world-renowned celebrity.

Verne’s work often weaves a great adventure with an optimistic imagining of the opportunities for human progress through scientific advancement. Although none of his novels are set in Brittany, many contain references to the city of his youth and its seafarers; Nantes obviously features prominently in his autobiographical work The Story of my Boyhood (1891). Today, he is best known for the over 60 novels that constitute the Extraordinary Voyages series but he was also a prolific writer of short stories, historical works, poetry and drama. Verne is the second most-translated author in the world, ranking between Agatha Christie and Shakespeare; he is also the fourth most screened author, after Shakespeare, Dickens and Doyle, his works having been adapted for cinema and television more than 300 times since 1902’s A Trip to the Moon.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Verne

Born into a world of wealth and privilege in New York, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) had required a growing reputation as an author of note by the time she settled permanently in France in 1907, thanks mainly to the critical reception of The Touchstone (1900) and The House of Mirth (1905). Other major works soon followed, including Ethan Frome (1911), The Reef (1912) and that classic satire of social-climbing by marriage, The Custom of the Country (1913). In 1921, she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Age of Innocence (1920).

Although her first novel was not published until she was forty years of age, Wharton published some 40 volumes during her lifetime, ranging from books on interior design and architecture to travelogues and collections of short stories and poetry. In an autobiographical sketch written towards the end of her life, A Little Girl’s New York (1938), she recalls when, as a 17 year old, she looked out of her city window and imagined the forest of Brocéliande spread out before her. Almost forty years later, she imagined a similarly mysterious Brittany; one that provides the atmospheric back-drop for two of the very few ghost stories she wrote: Kerfol (1916) and Miss Mary Pask (1926).

Creating a captivating but believable atmosphere was something that French naval officer and writer Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who published under the pseudonym Pierre Loti, excelled at. He entered the Naval College in Brest in 1867 and was a frequent visitor to the north coast port of Paimpol between 1877 and 1884. Sometimes described as the finest descriptive writer of his day, he depicted the harsh and lonely life of the Breton fishermen who spent long seasons fishing for cod in the wild north Atlantic in his wonderfully evocative novel An Iceland Fisherman (1886).

Early twentieth century fishermen - Pierre Loti - Brittany

François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) is one of Brittany’s most influential authors; soldier, statesman, diplomat and father of the French romanticism movement. His ambivalent attitude to the French Revolution saw him journey to North America in 1791 where he travelled quite extensively for a year; a journey that would inspire several future works such as Atala (1801) and René (1802) and a full account of his experiences in Travels in America (1826).

During his seven year exile in England he wrote his first significant work, Essay on Revolutions (1797), a powerful survey of world history through the lens of ancient and modern revolutions. He also wrote his epic novel The Natchez during this time but it would not be published until 1825 although the novellas Atala and René were early discarded excerpts from this book. Both these works were very well received, combining notions of idyllic innocence with the troubled melancholic angst of romanticism: in one, a young girl kills herself to protect her vow of chastity, made before she found love; in the other, a girl enters a convent in an attempt to escape her passion for her brother.

Other works followed and his treatise extolling Christianity, The Genius of Christianity (1802), was widely admired across the political spectrum, some scholars point to this work as the source of the renewed interest in Gothic architecture taken in the 19th century. In 1809 he began writing his memoirs, a project that he would return to every so often until his death. Published posthumously in 1849-50, his Memoirs From Beyond The Grave is as much a history of the turbulent times in which he lived as it is an exposition of his philosophical musings or conventional autobiography.

It seems that he regretted the publication of René, saying “if it were possible for me to destroy it, I would. It spawned a whole family of René poets and prose-mongers; all we hear nowadays are pitiful disjointed phrases; the only subject is gales and storms and unknown ills moaned out to the clouds and to the night”. Chateaubriand’s tomb is on the small island of Grand Bé, where, according to legend, an underground passage begins which goes as far as England. His legacy to French literature was profound; as a teenager, Victor Hugo wrote “I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing.”

Rene by Chateaubriand - Brittany
Franz Ludwig Catel : The Final Scene of René (1820)

Chateaubriand should not be confused with the similar sounding Alphonse de Châteaubriant (1877-1951), another noted Breton author. His two most highly regarded novels both won prestigious national awards either side of the First World War; Monsieur des Lourdines (1911) and La Brière (1923). Both works focus on the battle of man against his, sometimes overwhelming, fate; nature versus industrialisation; the erosion of community amidst the corruption of the modern world. La Brière was the biggest selling French language book between the world wars but is not so well known these days due to Châteaubriant’s post-war ignominy; he was a vocal supporter of Nazi ideology and an active collaborator with the German occupying forces. He fled to Germany as the allies approached Paris in 1944 and thence to Austria after the German surrender. In October 1948, he was sentenced to death in absentia as part of the legal process purging France of wartime collaborators but he escaped justice, having taken refuge in a Tyrolean monastery where he died a few years later.

The Second World War features as backdrop to two quite different works evoking Brittany in wartime and both published while the war was still raging. The Anchored Heart (1941) by Ida Treat (1889-1978), an American writer and journalist who had lived in Brittany for some fifteen years, offers a keenly observed account of life on the Ile Bréhat off the north coast of Brittany prior to and during the initial German occupation in 1940.

The author once known as the queen of spy writers, Scottish-American Helen MacInnes (1907-1985), published 21 espionage thrillers during her career as a writer that began with a volume on sexual life in ancient Rome. Her second novel, Assignment in Brittany (1942), was a New York Times bestseller highly praised for its depiction of covert espionage and clandestine living in German-occupied Brittany in 1940. MacInnes’ books have sold over 25 million copies in the USA alone and have been translated into over 22 languages. Several of her books have been adapted for cinema including Above Suspicion (1941) and The Salzburg Connection (1968).

Cosette - Les Mis - Victor Hugo - Brittany
Emile Bayard : Cosette (1862)

When one thinks of novels depicting Brittany during times of war, a much earlier conflict is usually brought to mind – the French Revolution of 1789-99 – due to one of the greatest of French writers, Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Profoundly influenced by the work of Chateaubriand, Hugo’s talent was prodigious; publishing several volumes of highly acclaimed poetry and two novels by the time he was 29. His novel, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) confirmed his reputation as a powerful writer of note and was, tellingly, cited as a major influence by both Dickens and Dostoyevsky. Hugo made two extended tours of Brittany in 1834 and 1836 and while a popular playwright in his day, he is perhaps best remembered internationally as the author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) which he wrote during his long exile in Guernsey.

Acclaimed a national hero upon his return to France in 1870, Hugo re-entered the political arena; his literary output now mostly consisting of collections of poetry and political tracts. However, his last novel, Ninety Three (1874) is a drama centred around the Breton counter-revolutionary revolts known as the Chouannerie in 1793. This was a popular movement that was less inspired by the royalist cause than anger at the heavy-handed acts of the republican government including its suppression of the Parliament of Brittany and the rights guaranteed under the acts of union with France and repression of the Church. Hugo weaves his tale between Brittany and Paris and the narrative is broken into three parts, each offering a different view of events through the eyes of the main protagonists.

The Chouan rebellion of 1792 to 1800 also formed the back-drop to the first novel that Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) published under his own name; Les Chouans, written in 1827. Set in 1799, the book is the earliest historical setting for the vast collection of novels and short stories that would eventually constitute La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). A well-paced historical romance, the book perhaps lacks the depth of characterisation that would later become a key feature of the author’s work. His reputation as the supreme observer and chronicler of contemporary French society has often seen him labelled as the greatest French novelist of all time.

One of France’s most widely read authors, Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), was a prolific playwright and writer of non-fiction, predominantly travel related books, but his best legacy is surely his extensive series of historical romance and adventure novels. Incredibly, three of his most famous works were published in the same year, 1844, namely: The Corsican Brothers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The final volume of the trilogy featuring the musketeers, The Vicomte of Bragelonne (1847) concludes with the story of The Man in the Iron Mask.

The Man in the Iron Mask - Dumas - Brittany

It is on the foreshore near Le Palais on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the southern coast of Brittany, that Aramis, Porthos and d’Artagnan meet for the last time; a few miles east along the coast is the site of the climactic scene in the grotto of Locmaria. Dumas’ work was published in English several times during his lifetime, cementing his reputation and celebrity status throughout Europe. Although Dumas is credited as sole author of his novels, he had a ghost writer, Auguste Maquet, who produced drafts built around plots based upon historical events; Dumas polished or re-wrote these drafts adding his signature flair for character and drama. Maquet took Dumas and his publishers to court several times over unpaid fees and for recognition as co-author but eventually dropped his copyright claim for a lump sum settlement.

Not long after the publication of The Black Tulip (1850), Dumas went into exile, travelling extensively, and maintained his impressive literary output during those thirteen years, including writing one of the earliest werewolf fantasies, The Wolf Leader (1857). He returned to France in 1864 and spent much of 1869 in Brittany writing a book to the glory of good food which was published posthumously as A Dictionary of Cooking (1873). Dumas’ work has been published in over a hundred languages and adapted into a multitude of cinema and television offerings.

Numerous authors have continued the tradition of crafting historical romances set in Brittany, first established by Wace of Jersey and Marie de France in the 12th century.

Born in Brittany, Marguerite Cunliffe-Owen (1859-1927) was a Countess who became a successful newspaper columnist and author who often published under the pseudonym La Marquise de Fontenoy. Two of her novels are set in Brittany; Emerald and Ermine (1907) has all the ingredients that you would expect to find in an historical romance of its time; a brooding château, secret passages, fabulous jewels and the battle between heroine and villain. Her subsequent book, The Cradle of the Rose (1908) is a more atmospheric novel that tries hard to evoke the spirit of Brittany, telling as it does the tale of a diplomatic spouse who returns to her roots while her husband is on assignment in the Orient and quickly finds herself mysteriously thrust into the role of feared feudal princess.

Susan Carroll is an award-winning American writer of historical romance novels; her The Dark Queen Saga (2005-12) consists of six interesting novels based around a family of legendary healers and mystics in Brittany, known as the Sisters of Faire Isle and their battle to thwart the sinister ambitions of Catherine de Medici, the Dark Queen.

Brittany during the Middle Ages also forms the backdrop to the five novels that make up the His Fair Assassin (2012-20) series of books by the American author Robin LaFevers. Aimed primarily at young adults, the books merge a significant amount of historically accurate details amongst tales of high intrigue, romance, betrayal and a convent that secretly trains deadly assassins.

Amongst the many works written by American author Gillian Bradshaw is the historical novel The Wolf Hunt (2001); a book based on Marie de France’s Breton lai of the werewolf, Bisclavret.  The book is strong on historical atmosphere and features well drawn characters mired in often complex situations and even if you know the lai of Bisclavret, the tale crafted by Bradshaw is a compelling version worth reading.

The Winter King - Warlord Chronicles - King Arthur - Brittany
The Winter King – The first book of the Warlord Chronicles

The Warlord Chronicles (1995-97) is a trilogy of books by English author Bernard Cornwell featuring the legendary King Arthur and set around the 6th century; a time when the old religion of the Celts was finally supplanted by Christianity and when the native Britons were fighting a steadily rear-guard action against the Saxon invaders to the east and repelling Irish incursions in the west. The British colonisation of Armorica and the roles of Arthur and his knights in forging Brittany feature throughout the books which offer a wonderful blend of historical fiction and Arthurian mythology. Cornwell, a prolific writer, himself once said that of all his books, these were his favourites.

Another British author, Robert Holdstock (1948-2009), took inspiration from the mythology surrounding King Arthur’s sage Merlin in his fantasy novel Merlin’s Wood (1994); a contemporary story of a young couple returning to their childhood home near the forest of Brocéliande whose deaf, dumb and blind child slowly gains all his faculties while his mother loses hers. The theft of power is a core theme in the book which revolves around the eternal struggle between Merlin and Vivien and its impact on those who live within the shadows of the magical forest.

The folktales of Brittany also find their way into one of the many works penned by the English writer, A S Byatt, in her award-winning novel, Possession (1990). This is a very entertaining book and difficult to sum-up in a sentence but essentially the tale revolves around a pair of academics determined to uncover the truth about the depths of the relationship between two Victorian poets; both stories run parallel throughout the book and spend much time in Brittany, and also explore the legends of the fairy Melusine and the sunken city of Ker-Is.

The lost city of Ker-Is forms one of the major elements in the occult fantasy The Vampires of Finistère (1970) by Peter Saxon; this was a pseudonym used by various authors who wrote what might be termed pulp fiction for a small British publishing house in the 1960s. The author is believed to have been Rex Dolphin (1915-1990) whose tale features many of the tropes one would expect to see in a Hammer movie of the period: men dressed as skeletons dancing around nocturnal bonfires, a kidnapped virgin, the Green Wolf, hostile locals, a feral girl, werewolves and the Princess Ahès re-imagined as a shape-shifting vampiric mermaid.

Vampires of Finistere - pulp fiction - Ker-Is - Brittany

The symbolism associated with Gothic horror fiction features heavily in the first novel of the French writer Julien Gracq (1910-2007). The Castle of Argol (1938) tells the tale of a wealthy man who has bought a mysterious castle in rural Brittany and invited his best friend to visit, who arrives accompanied by a beautiful woman. Gracq described his work as a demonic version of Wagner’s opera Parsifal although the book is, at times, overburdened with symbolism and verbose descriptions. The interplay between the three characters takes place over a deliberately unspecified amount of time and is related to the reader, there being virtually no dialogue in the book.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, the prolific English author P G Wodehouse set his farce Hot Water (1932) in the fictional Breton resort of Saint-Rocque. Some people have suggested that this town is a fictionalised Monte Carlo but this is unlikely; Wodehouse was not an author to waste words and would not have given a Breton name and specified Brittany as the town’s location if he had intended the south of France.

It is far more likely that Saint-Rocque is a fictionalised Dinard; a resort on the north coast of Brittany that was very popular with wealthy British and American high-society and celebrity visitors, including Wodehouse himself, right up to the mid-1930s when it started to lose favour to the resorts of the French Riviera. Indeed, other literary luminaries such as Churchill, Colette, Agatha Christie, Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Verne and Proust were regular visitors and today, just across the Rance estuary is the home of one of the most successful contemporary Russian writers, Grigory Chkhartishvili, who publishes under the name Boris Akunin. An accomplished historian, he turned to writing fiction at forty and since the publication of his first novel, The Winter Queen (1998), has amassed sales in excess of 30 million books.

Art Deco - Dinard - P G Wodehouse

Although Hot Water contains none of Wodehouse’s regular characters, the character types he often depicts are all present: an ambitious wife, English aristocrats, an American millionaire and ex-football star, a prohibitionist but hypocritical US senator, con artists, jewel thieves and an undercover private detective. The book is not one of Wodehouse’s better known works but it is classic Wodehouse and amusingly captures the carefree atmosphere of a French resort between the world wars. Saint-Rocque also appears in in his later novel, French Leave (1956).

Another English author who specialised in humorous fiction, H E Bates (1905-1974), set his follow-up novel to The Darling Buds of May (1958) in Brittany. A Breath of French Air (1959) takes place a year after the events of the previous book and sees the Larkin family escape the summer rains of rural Kent for the sun of Brittany only to find more summer rain, weak tea and a rather curmudgeonly hotel keeper.

The Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a frequent visitor to Brittany. His most famous character, the detective Maigret, features in an astonishing 75 books and 28 short stories, and despite the character having spent his formative years in the Breton city of Nantes, only one novel features an entirely Breton setting; Maigret and the Yellow Dog (1931). This is a classic Simenon whodunit with Maigret called to investigate an attempted murder and soon becoming embroiled in a poisoning, the mysterious disappearance of a journalist and a suspicious vagrant with a yellow haired dog.

Simenon also wrote a number of weightier novels or what the French call romans durs, one of these also has a Breton setting, The Red Donkey (1933). The book is a coming-of-age drama telling the story of a troubled young newspaper reporter in Nantes who spends his evenings in a nightclub where he grows obsessed with an older woman and through a combination of debt and naivety becomes involved with criminals for whom he steals identity documents. This novel was published in English as The Nightclub and is one of almost 400 books written by Simenon who is one of the most translated and best-selling authors of the last hundred years, with over half a billion books sold.

Sometimes described as the heir to Simenon, former editor and publisher, the German author Jörg Bong has written nine crime novels set in Brittany under the pseudonym Jean-Luc Bannalec; the first in the series was published in English as Death in Brittany (2012). His books follow the many investigations of a maverick, coffee-loving fictional detective banished to the province from Paris and are rich in local colour and detail.

Asterix in Brittany

No literary look at Brittany would be complete without mention of those most colourful of Bretons, Astérix and Obelix, created by Albert Uderzo (1927-2020) and René Goscinny (1926-1977) in 1959. A few towns have tried to lay claim to being the inspiration for that small village populated by indomitable Gauls who, time and again, resist the Roman invader but the strongest claim seems to belong to Erquy on the north coast of Brittany. It enjoys the right coastal setting with evidence of an Iron Age defensive fortification, has the requisite stone quarries and even the three menhirs featured in the fictional village. When asked, Uderzo suggested that he might have been unconsciously drawn to the area around Erquy as the setting for his comic strip; his family settled near Saint Brieuc during the Second World War and it was an area that he returned to often. In Le Tour de Gaule d’Astérix (1963), published in English as Astérix and the Banquet, Astérix and Obelisk decide to break out of the stockade the Romans have built around their village and travel throughout Gaul to collect regional delicacies for a special feat; the map drawn by Astérix notes the route they will take and places the area around Saint Brieuc and Erquy as home.

Since their first appearance in 1959, the characters have morphed into an industry; 34 books published in over a hundred languages with over 280 million copies sold, a dozen movies and even a theme park. Impressive achievements for a little guy from Armorica!

As is the case with all works that have been translated from one language into another, the competence and skill of the translator and their editor is crucial. There are plenty of great translations around but also some less good, albeit linguistically accurate, ones; choose your edition with care. If unsure, why not have a hunt here on WordPress to see what others recommend?

Coronavirus in Asterix

Lai of the Breton Werewolf

The 12th century poet Marie de France remains a mystery to us but her writing had a strong and lasting influence on the development of medieval literature. Adapted from traditional Breton folklore, her tales are recognised as a treasure of European culture.

One of the most intriguing figures in medieval literature, Marie de France is among the first recorded female authors in Europe but we know almost nothing about her despite her exhortation that: “Those to whom God has gifted eloquence of speech, should not hide their gift but display it willingly”. Sadly, for one so eloquent, she offers us very little clues beyond her name being Marie but this could even be a pseudonym; in another work attributed to her she tells us: “Marie is my name, I am of France”.

A few further clues about Marie can be gleaned from an examination of her known texts but they do not allow us to infer very much: she had connections at a royal court and was familiar with the chivalric code and notions of courtly love thus she was most likely a noble and possibly an abbess; she wrote in an Anglo-Norman dialect but also seems to have been conversant with Breton, English and Latin, having declared that she had translated from all three languages. So, possibly she was from Normandy or Brittany and had followed her family to England where many Breton and Norman lords had secured fiefdoms for services rendered to William the Conqueror and his house.  

Not only are we unable to fully confirm the identity of the mysterious Marie but dating her work is also not without difficulties. We can be fairly confident that some of her work was known before circa 1180 as that is the approximate date of a manuscript that provides the only contemporary reference of her; a Life of Saint Edmund written by Denis Pyramus, a Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, who talks in his prologue of “the Lady Marie who composed in rhyme, lines from lais, which are not in the least true, indeed she is highly praised for them and the rhyme is appreciated everywhere.”

Marie de France manuscript

These lais are fairly long narrative poems written in rhyming verse composed sometime between 1155 and 1175. Marie also produced a collection of the fables of Aesop and a long poem, the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, and it is generally believed that these were composed after the lais. Only one extant manuscript is known to contain all the twelve lais attributed to Marie although some scholars argue that another two, including one featuring King Gradlon, should rightfully be attributed to her.

In her prologue, Marie tells us that she had been looking for a work to translate into “the common tongue” and could find nothing suitable that had not already been done, so she decided to set down the stories that she had heard sung as lais by Breton minstrels. We know that the bards of Brittany and other Celtic nations performed narrative tales to music and the latter day Breton minstrels would have been heir to that ancient tradition. Sadly, no confirmed written examples have survived the years and it is therefore quite prescient of Marie to have committed the stories contained in the old lais to parchment, as she mentions in her prologue her earnest desire that they should “not perish and be forgotten”.

Marie herself notes that her compositions are not translations of the original lais; they are new works based on them, creating a new direction for a long established genre of story-telling. Marie effectively took the lai from the oral tradition and its delivery as a musical performance to a written poem designed to be narrated to an audience. The story at the heart of the old lai having been retold and recast in a world that her audience would find both seemingly exotic and ancient but also quite familiar. Marie weaves her tales of great heroes and marvellous beings from the Celtic tradition with the contemporary motifs of Christian virtue, marriage, courtly love and Anglo-Norman feudalism.

Medieval minstrels

It was said that William the Conqueror had been passionately fond of Breton lais since his youth and this might help explain the continued popularity of the genre in the Anglo-Norman court at the time of Marie. Like the tales performed by the Celtic bards of old, these Breton lais were sang aloud, usually accompanied by a harp or hurdy-gurdy, as memorials of noteworthy men and events. In the romanticised, courtly world of the medieval minstrel, the ideal knight was both a gallant warrior and a talented poet and singer; as the knightly hero was described in Thomas of England’s poem, Tristan: “He sang the air of his lai so beautifully in Breton, Welsh, Latin, and French. So sweetly he sang that no one could tell which was sweeter or more praiseworthy; his harpistry or his singing.”

Whether we agree on twelve or fourteen, the lais of Marie de France, all focus, to one degree or another, on the trials and tribulations of men and women brought on by love. Today we are so used to seeing the idea of love, in all its guises from platonic romance to erotic desire, played out and presented to and for us in popular drama, literature and culture, that we barely register its presence. Indeed, we assume that it was always there, after all love is an intrinsic part of our human nature which all great literature shines a light on but this was not always so. For the most part, the literature of antiquity and the Dark Ages virtually ignored it; focusing instead on heroic deeds and quests, battles, glory and the Divine. The idea of friendship and loyalty was often present but not so love.

The lai’s of Marie de France are amongst the earliest written European literature where the notion of love is central; that love motivates and produces humanity’s best and basest behaviours.  Her tales mix traces of Celtic beliefs and concepts of fate and fortune with themes of life and death, love and loss, fidelity and betrayal. Although her perspectives on these subjects would have been strongly influenced by her courtly upbringing, she presents her themes not as a moraliser but as a storyteller; the lais are peppered with asides to the listener but these serve to emphasise points of fact rather than highlight points of Christian morality. The world of Marie’s Breton lais is therefore a nuanced one and one where female characters play a more central role than typically found in the literature of the period where women were often peripheral figures.

Medieval illustration of courtly love

As mentioned above, despite the lais being squarely set within the framework of the Anglo-Norman courtly worldview, Marie retains strong traces of the Celtic superstitions and belief in the marvellous that would have featured strongly in the lais sung for her in her youth. Her lais feature incredible creatures such as a fairy queen, a talking deer, a weasel who holds the flower of resurrection, a hawk that turns into a man and a man that turns into a wolf. It is this latter tale that I have chosen to illustrate below.

As you can appreciate, the lais of Marie de France have been translated and edited into modern English and French many times, particularly over the last two hundred years, some have even been produced in rhyming verse. However, the translation that I have chosen is drawn from Jessie Weston’s book Arthurian Romances Unrepresented in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1910) which presents lais rendered into English prose from the poems of Marie de France and others that might form the back-story to characters mentioned in Malory’s epic work.

The author notes that a single sentence in Morte d’Arthur suggested this story, namely: “Sir Marrok, the good knight that was betrayed with his wife, for she made him seven year a werewolf.” In Malory’s tale, Sir Marrok features in the roll of knights who attempted to heal the injured knight, Sir Urry. In combat, Sir Urry had suffered seven great wounds, three on the head and four on his body and upon his left hand but a sorceress cursed him so that his wounds would never heal until treated by the best knight in the world. Sir Urry travelled across Europe in search of one who might heal his suppurating wounds and, at length, arrived at the court of King Arthur where all the knights at court tried to help him. Their attempts were in vain until the appearance of that Breton “flower of the world’s knights”, Sir Lancelot.

Sir Marrock

The Lai of the Werewolf

Amongst the tales I tell you, I cannot forget the lai of the werewolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land; in Brittany he is named Bisclavaret whilst the Norman calls him Garwal.

It is certain and we all know it, that many a christened man has suffered this change and ran wild in woods as a werewolf. The werewolf is a fearsome beast; lurking within the forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He hunts about the place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Listen now, to the adventure of the werewolf that I have to tell.

In the days of King Arthur, there lived in Brittany a valiant knight of noble birth and countenance; in high favour with his lord and much loved by all his fellows. This knight was wedded to a fair and gracious lady whom he loved tenderly and she too loved her lord but one thing vexed her sorely: three days in every week would her husband leave her and none knew where he went or what he did while absent.

And every time the lady vexed herself more and more, ‘till at last she could no longer keep silence and when her husband returned, joyful at heart after one of these journeys, she said to him: “My dear lord, there is something I would ask you and yet I scarce dare, for I fear lest you be angry with me.”

Then her lord drew her to him, and kissed her tenderly. “Lady,” he said, “fear not to ask me, there is nothing I would not gladly tell you, if it be in my power.”

“In faith,” she said, “now is my heart at rest. My lord, if you only knew how terrified I am in the days I am alone; I rise in the morning afraid and lie down at night in such dread of losing you that if I be not soon reassured I think I shall die of it. Tell me, I pray, where you go and on what errand, that I who love you may be at rest during your absence.”

“Lady,” he answered, “for the love of God ask me no more, for indeed if I told you evil would surely come of it; you would cease to love me and I should be lost.”

Medieval illustration of wolves

When the lady heard this she was ill-pleased, nor would she let her lord be at peace but day by day she besought him with prayers and caresses, till at length he yielded and told her all the truth. “Lady,” he said, “there is a spell upon me: three days in the week am I forced to become a werewolf; and when I feel the change coming upon me I hide myself in the thick of the forest and there I live on prey and roots till the time has expired.”

When he had told her this, his wife asked him what of his clothes? Did he still wear them in his wolf’s shape? “No,” he said, “I must set them aside.”  His wife pressed him keenly and demanded to know what he did with his clothes. “That I may not tell you, for if I were to lose them, or they should be stolen from me, then must I remain a wolf all my days, nothing could aid me save that the garments be brought to me again. So for my own safety I must keep the matter secret.”

“My dear lord, why hide it from me? Surely thou has no fear of me who loves you above all else? Little love can you have for me! What have I done? What sin have I committed that you should withdraw your trust in me so? You must tell me.” Thus she wept and entreated until, at length, the knight yielded and told her all.

“Dear wife,” he said, “near the forest on the highway, at a cross road, is an old chapel wherein I have often found help and succour. Close to it, under a thick shrub, is a large stone with a hollow beneath it; under that stone I hide my clothes until the enchantment has lost its power and I may turn myself homewards.”

Man and beast

Now, when the lady had heard this story it fell out even as her husband had foretold, for her love was changed to loathing and she was seized with a great dread and fear of him. She was terrified to be in his presence and no longer wished to lie with him, yet he was her lord and she knew not how she might escape from him.

Then she remembered a certain knight of that country, who had loved her long and wooed her in vain before she wedded her lord; and one time when her husband went forth, she sent for him in secret and bade him come give her counsel on a matter that troubled her. When he came she bade him swear to keep secret what she might tell him and when he had sworn, she told him all and prayed him for the sake of the love he once bore her to free her from one who was neither beast nor man and yet both.

The knight, who loved her still, was ready to do all she might desire and she said, “It is but to steal his clothes, for then he can no more become a man but must dwell in the forest as a wolf all his days and someone will surely slay him.” So, he went forth and did after her bidding and brought her husband’s clothes. She hid them away saying, “Now am I safe and that monster can return to terrify me no more.”

When time went on and her husband came not, the lady feigned to be anxious for his welfare and sent his men forth to seek him; they went through all the land but could find no trace of their lord. At length, they gave up the search and all deemed he had been slain on one of his mysterious journeys. When a year had passed and the lady thought the wolf had surely been killed, she wedded the knight who had aided her and thought no more of the husband she had betrayed.

Bisclavret's wife and the knight

But the poor werewolf roamed the forest in suffering and sorrow, for though a beast outwardly yet he had the heart and brain of a man, and knew well what had happened and he grieved bitterly, for he had loved his wife truly and well.

Now it chanced one day that the king of that land was hunting in that very forest and the hounds came on the track of the werewolf and roused him from his lair and gave chase to him. All day he fled before them through the woodland and at last when they were close upon him and he was in peril of being caught and torn in pieces, the king came riding after the hounds, and the wolf swerved aside and ran to him, seizing him by the stirrup, and kissing his foot in sign of submission.

The king was much astonished and called to his companions to come swiftly. “See here, my lords,” he said, “what do you think of this marvel? See how this beast entreats mercy of me; he has the sense of a man! Drive off the dogs, for I will not have him injured. Turn we homewards, I take this beast in my peace and will hunt no more in this forest lest by chance he be slain.”

Wolf hunting

With that they turned their bridles and rode homewards but the wolf followed and would not be driven back, even when they came to the royal castle. The king was greatly pleased, for he thought the matter strange and marvellous; no such tale had he ever heard before and since he had taken a great liking for the beast he bade his knights not merely to do the wolf no harm but to treat him with all care and kindness, on pain of losing royal favour. So all day the wolf roamed the court, free among the knights and at night he slept in the king’s chamber. Wherever the king went, he would have his wolf go too and all the courtiers made much of the beast, seeing that it pleased their lord, and finding that he did no harm to any man among them.

Now when a long time had passed the king had occasion to hold a solemn court; he summoned all his barons from near and far and among them came the knight who had betrayed the werewolf and wedded his lady; he had little thought that his rival was yet in life, still less that he was so near at hand. But as soon as the wolf saw him he sprang upon him savagely, tearing him with his teeth and would have slain him if the king had not called him off and even then twice again he would have seized him.

Everyone in the castle was astonished at the rage shown by the beast, which had always been so gentle and a whisper went round that surely there must be something which no one knew against the knight, for the wolf would not have attacked him without cause. All the time the court lasted the wolf had to be kept in close guard. When at length it broke up, the knight who had been attacked was the first to leave and when the knight had gone the wolf was once more as tame and friendly as he had been from the first and all the courtiers made a pet of him as they had done before and forgot that he had ever shown himself so savage.

At length, the king decided that he would make a progress through his kingdom and at the same time hunt for a time in the forest where he had found the wolf. As was his custom, he took the beast with him. Now the lady, the werewolf’s treacherous wife, hearing that the king would abide some time in that part of the country, prayed for an audience that she might win the royal favour by presenting rich gifts, for she knew well that the king loved not her second husband as he had loved the first.

Medieval king's progress

The king granted an appointment but when the lady entered the meeting hall the wolf suddenly flew upon her and before any could hinder had bitten the nose from off her face. The courtiers drew out their weapons and would have slain the beast, when a wise man, one of the king’s councillors, stayed them. “Sire,” he said, “listen to me, this wolf has long been with us, there is not one of us here who has not been near him and caressed him, over and over again; yet not a man of us has he ever touched or even shown ill-will. But two has he ever attacked, this lady here and the lord, her husband. Now, sire, consider, this lady was the wife of the knight that you once held dear and who was lost long ago, no man knowing what became to him. Take my counsel, put this lady in guard and question her closely as to whether she can give any reason why the wolf should hate her. Many a marvel has come to pass in Brittany and methinks there is something stranger than we know here.”

The king agreed the old lord’s counsel; he caused the lady and her husband to be put in prison and questioned separately with threats if they kept silence; till at length the lady confessed how she had betrayed her first husband by causing his clothes to be stolen from him when he was in a wolf’s form. Since that time he had disappeared; she knew not whether he was alive or dead but she thought that perhaps this wolf was he. When the king heard this he commanded them to fetch the clothes belonging to the lost knight, whether it were pleasing to the lady or not; and when they were brought he laid them before the wolf and waited to see what would happen.

However, the wolf made as if he saw them not and the wise councillor said, “Sire, if this beast is a werewolf he will not change shapes while there are any to behold him; since it is only with great pain and difficulty he can do so. Bid them take wolf and garments into your chamber and fasten the doors upon him; then leave him for a while, and we shall see if he becomes a man.”

The king thought this sound counsel and he himself took the beast into his chamber and closed the doors fast. Then they waited for a time that seemed long enough to the king, and when the old lord told him he might do so, he took two nobles and unlocked the doors, and entered, and lo, on the king’s bed lay the long lost knight in a deep slumber!

The king ran to him and embraced him warmly. When the first wonder had somewhat passed, he bade him take back all the lands of which he had been robbed, and over and above he bestowed upon him many rich gifts.

The treacherous wife and her husband were banished from the country; many years they lived in a foreign land and had children and grandchildren but all their descendants might be known by this, that the maidens were all born without noses.

Born without a nose

The old books say that this adventure is verily true and that it was in order that the memory of it should be preserved for all time that the Bretons put it in verse and called it ‘The Lai of the Werewolf.’

I will make no attempt to analyse the tale but let you take from it what, if anything, you will. Some scholars have made much of the idea of transformation in the story and the notion of man as beast. Others have seen the key theme as one of innate nobility or the importance of courtly hierarchy. While some call it a protofeminist tale, others call it misogynistic and some declare that it is really about the struggle for homosexual acceptance. I will leave the last words to Marie herself, who wrote almost 800 years ago: “He performs his task poorly who lets himself be forgotten”.