Turner to Monet
Here in Brittany the peasants have a medieval air about them and do not for a moment look as though they think that Paris exists and it is 1889
Gauguin, letter to Van Gogh, 18891
Haystacks in Brittany is among a small number of works painted by Gauguin in 1890 at Le Pouldu, on the Breton coast. From July 1886 until his departure for Tahiti in March 1891, Gauguin travelled regularly between Paris and towns in Brittany and Provence – the latter the site of his notorious collaboration with Van Gogh – searching for a way to consolidate his style, as well as a place to live cheaply. He stayed at Le Pouldu, some twenty kilometres south-west of Pont-Aven, late in 1889 and during 1890. The works he painted there, images of peasant life, the landscape and harvest scenes, are some of the most radically simplified of his career. Gauguin described how he ‘scrutinised the horizons, seeking that harmony of human life with animal and vegetable life through compositions in which I allowed the great voice of the earth to play an important part’.2
Like many of his generation Gauguin recognised the strength of landscape painting at this time. His early works show the impact of Corot and other Barbizon painters; he painted in an Impressionist mode until the late 1880s and, introduced by Pissarro, was included in several Impressionist exhibitions. By 1885 Gauguin had started painting full-time and, from his first campaign in Brittany, reduced traditional modelling to a strict minimum: in his Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu works it is his combination of colour and form, rather than narrative or sentiment, which appeals to the viewer. Gauguin’s absorption of the peasant traditions of the region, music and especially woodcarving, as well as the influences of ‘primitive art’ and Japanese prints, is apparent.3Having abandoned Pont-Aven – he complained that it was now too spoilt by crowds – Gauguin set off for the remote hamlet of Le Pouldu. The isolated region, with its dramatic rocky peninsula, windswept dunes, sandy beaches and scattered farms, suited Gauguin. At the Buvette de la Plage – an inn owned by a young local woman, Marie Henry – he was joined by Sérusier and the Dutch painter Jacob Mayer de Haan (1852–1895).
Haystacks in Brittany has the structure of a traditional landscape. The painting is composed of a series of bands: the distant sky, fields in the mid-ground and crops of the foreground, with a frieze of cows and their female attendant in front. Despite its variant titles, it is not the agricultural land that is of interest here, but the rich patterns that Gauguin develops from various elements. The disjunction between the landscape’s recession and the frieze-like procession of cows and cowherd emphasises the stained-glass qualities of Haystacks in Brittany. The previous year Gauguin had experimented with a technique he learnt from a restorer. The technique, using paste, newspaper and horn irons, produced a matt surface.4His synthétiste paintings and subsequent work in Tahiti appear to have benefited from this new process.
1 Written in Le Pouldu, c. 20 October 1889, to Vincent Van Gogh, in Douglas Cooper, Paul Gauguin: 45 lettres à Vincent, Théo et Jo Van Gogh. Collection Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, ‘s-Gravenhage: Staatsuitgeverij, 1983, no. 36.
2 Belinda Thomson, Gauguin, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p. 102.
3 Gauguin also made sculpture, ceramics and prints as well as carving in wood.
4 Thomson, p. 102.