France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903
Washerwomen at Pont-Aven
[Les lavandières à Pont-Aven] 1886
oil on canvas
canvas 71.0 (h) x 90.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1965
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In 1885 Gauguin fled what he saw as the strictures of his life in Copenhagen with his Danish wife Mette and her family. Arriving back in Paris he hoped to be actively engaged as an artist, but very few financial prospects appeared. In August of that year he lamented:
I have no money, no house, no furniture—only a promise of work from Bouillot if he has any. If he has, I shall rent a little studio from him and work and sleep there. I shall buy whatever food I can afford. If I sell some pictures, I shall go next summer to an out of the way spot in Brittany to paint pictures and live economically. Brittany is still the cheapest place for living. When I get over the worst, if business looks up, and my talents get suitably rewarded, I shall think of settling down somewhere.1
The following year, in the summer months of July to October, he settled in Brittany, seeking refuge from his penury and hoping to focus more completely on his art in a more exotic location. It was here that he painted the present work. In it we find that the artist is still under the pre-Pointillist stylistic influence of Camille Pissarro who, along with Edgar Degas, had invited Gauguin to join the fourth Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1879; he continued to exhibit with the group until their demise with the eighth exhibition in 1886. For Washerwomen at Pont-Aven, Gauguin’s brushstrokes are small and feathery and his outlines indistinct, with an emphasis instead on the immediate perception of motifs. The palette is lightened compared with his earlier Corot-inspired landscapes, and heightened with reds, oranges, blues and greens.
The location depicted is the old Saint-Guéolé Mill owned by the Simonou family of Pont-Aven. The focus, however, is not on the women themselves, but on their surrounds—the house, mill, barn and stable nestling amongst the trees, with a cloud-filled sky above. Gauguin has also included a sailing boat on the water. The figures of the washerwomen are derived from sketches the artist made in his notebooks of this period. The overall forms, composed with loose brushwork, suggest the wildness of the location, something Gauguin was later to recall in a letter to his friend the artist Emile Schuffenecker, when he wrote: ‘I like Brittany, it is savage and primitive. The flat sound of my wooden clogs on the cobblestones, deep, hollow and powerful, is the note I seek in my painting.’2
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Letter to Mette, 19 August 1885, letter 24, Maurice Malingue (ed.), Paul Gauguin: letters to his wife and friends, London: Saturn Press 1946, pp. 48–49. His former landlord Jules Bouillot was a sculptor who taught Gauguin techniques.
- February or early March 1888, letter 141, in Victor Merlhès (ed.), Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, Paris: Foundation Singer-Polignac 1984, quoted in Richard Brettel, Françoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory et al., The art of Paul Gauguin, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art; Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago 1988, p. 55.