Americans at Pont-Aven


When Paul Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in June, 1886, he was sufficiently impressed with the village to write to his wife: "What a shame we didn't come to Brittany before. . . . If I can gradually find a steady market for my paintings, I'll stay here all the year around." Before long the fledgling artist, already 38 years old, reported from this outpost in the northwest corner of France that "I'm respected as the best painter in Pont-Aven."

As revealed in the Walters Art Gallery's stunning exhibition, "Gauguin & the Pont-Aven School," this former sailor-stockbroker-banker-canvas salesman was able, while residing in the town, to fashion a style and a following which helped alter the course of Modern European Art.

The first painters who began arriving in Pont-Aven about 1850 specialized in realistic renderings of nature, followed by the Impressionists. Many who flocked to this and other nearby towns each summer were Paris art students seeking relief from the year's study of historic compositions and academic figure painting, and from the grayness of the French capital. The fact that these visitors were of numerous nationalities is born out by the makeup of the School of Pont-Aven itself, which included English, Irish, Dutch, Swiss, Danish and Polish artists, as well as French.

Pont-Aven offered sufficient subject matter to suit everyone's taste. First there was the series of stone mills peppering the banks of the Aven River, which cascades along steep granite hills toward the sea. Then there were the rows of beech trees forming the Bois d'Amour, the woods where each Sunday the town's bourgeois ladies used to promenade in their long dresses while carrying parasols, just as they did on the Island of La Grande Jatte in Paris. Surrounding hills provided vantage points for dramatic compositions of clustered white houses, and the harbor was always filled with large and small ships anchored where the river broadened into a wide estuary.

Pont-Aven had several small hotels and pensions; Gauguin and most of his followers put up at the Pension Gloanec, a three-story structure on the town square. It was here that Gauguin, with the help of Emile Bernard, developed the innovative style which involved a flattening of three-dimensional shapes; the expression of ideas, moods and emotion instead of merely copying nature, and an emphasis on the primitive rather than the picturesque. The new art form became known as Synthetism, a forerunner of French Fauvism and German Expressionism.

During Gauguin's residencies in Pont-Aven in 1886, 1888 and 1894, he seldom strayed more than 300 yards from his pension or studio in order to find subjects to paint. Shunning the harbor and forest, he regularly found inspiration in interiors, farmlands or figures in fields, employing hues of heightened intensities. After sharing his color theory with Paul Serusier, the latter produced a tiny landscape on the lid of a cigar box, then carried his talisman back to Paris where a group of fellow French artists learned of Gauguin's advice to him:

Gauguin: "How do you imagine the sky?"

Serusier: "Blue, more or less."

Gauguin: "Then paint with the brightest blue on your palette."

Those painters, including Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, banded together as "the Nabis," choosing to identify themselves with the Hebrew word for "Prophet."

Notably absent in the Walters exhibit are American artists. During the decade prior to Gauguin's arrival in Pont-Aven, the well-known Philadelphia painters Thomas Hovenden and Alexander Harrison were among a group of U.S. artists who ventured to Pont-Aven and even took up residence at the Pension Gloanec. But in 1883, three years before Gauguin happened upon the scene, Harrison left for the nearby village of Concarneau and the American art students followed suit, encouraged by the knowledge that Harrison would provide critiques of their work.

Concarneau was only eight miles away, and possessed some of the same attractions as Pont-Aven: A harbor full of fishing boats; houses that were half dwelling, half stable, with pigs running in and out; and peasants wearing wooden shoes plus starched lace coifs, much like those depicted in Gauguin's painting, "Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven" (pictured with this article). And where Pont-Aven had its row of mills, Concarneau boasted the Ville Close, an old walled portion of the town that had originally served as a fortress, with the ocean as its moat. The drawbridge was always open now, and inside the compound were narrow streets and small fishermen's houses.

Among the notable Americans who were attracted to Concarneau were Edward W. Redfield, Cecelia Beaux, Robert Henry, Edward Simmons, Henry McCarter, Eugene Iring Couse, and the Baltimore portraitist Thomas Corner. Harrison specialized in depicting sweeping vistas of shoreline, habitually painting his nude models outdoors as bathers in the surf. The beach at Concarneau was larger than Pont-Aven's, and here the artists could observe women in various stages of undress as they changed into their bathing suits. Their immodesty surprised the Americans, who noted the contrast with their country's beaches.

Sometimes, before summer's end, curiosity got the best of the American art students and they would venture over to Pont-Aven. Yet even when they stayed the night the language barrier often prevented them from comprehending the significance of Gauguin and the others whose company they momentarily shared. The exception was the renowned African-American artist Henry O. Tanner, who went to Pont-Aven in 1890 after completing his art studies in Paris. The mystical and religious nature of Tanner's future paintings can be attributed to this visit.

Gauguin's final stay in Pont-Aven ended in disaster. In May, 1894 he and three of the other Pont-Aven artists took their girlfriends to visit Concarneau, where they were assaulted by a group of local sailors. Gauguin's leg was broken, incapacitating him for two months. Afterward he left, alone, for Tahiti, where he spent the remainder of his life working in the style he had initially developed in Pont-Aven.

Bennard N. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and writer.

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