Paul GAUGUIN | Breton village in the snow [Village breton sous la neige]

France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903

Breton village in the snow
[Village breton sous la neige]
c. 1894
oil on canvas
canvas 62.0 (h) x 87.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchased with funds from an anonymous Canadian gift 1952
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

A small village in Brittany is the subject of Paul Gauguin’s painting of a winter landscape heavy with snow. The soft light of a pink sunset shrouds the scene in a chilly atmosphere. No people or animals brave these bitter weather conditions.

The triangular shapes of the houses with their high-pitched thatched roofs create bold forms across the centre of the painting. The Gothic-style church steeple projects out of view drawing our attention to the chimney stacks in the distance. Gauguin was influenced by the simplified shapes, strong contours and flattened two-dimensional space of Japanese prints, particularly those by Hiroshige.

A cluster of spindly trees creates strong vertical lines and directs our attention to the horizon and winter sky. The colours of the sky are reflected onto the stone buildings creating crimson highlights.

Breton village in the snow belongs to a long European tradition of snow-scapes beginning in medieval times. Gauguin has painted a study to show how varied white can be when other colours are added to create tints. The expanse of buttery snow in the foreground with touches of pink, blue, grey and yellow demonstrates how the subtle lighting changes of winter create surprising colour highlights in a landscape covered in snow.

After returning from Tahiti in 1893 with financial concerns, Gauguin travelled to Brittany in the following year seeking a simpler and less costly life. This painting was begun in the region, but completed in Tahiti, where it was found on an easel in the artist’s studio at Papeete at the time of his death in 1903.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay