France 1868 – 1941
The harvest (Breton landscape)
[La moisson (Paysage breton)] 1888
oil on wood panel
panel 56.5 (h) x 45.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1965
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The Pension Gloanec, situated at the south-eastern end of the square on Rue du Pont at Pont-Aven, offered board and lodging and was popular with artists—English, Americans and Danes.1 Many of them left a souvenir of their stay, or in lieu of payment. When Bernard’s The harvest was hung on the dining room wall, guests threw bread balls at it. Begged to remove the painting, the landlady, Marie Jeanne Gloanec returned it to the artist, who exchanged it for a work with Gauguin.
Bernard’s works are characterised by bold forms separated by dark contours, the sort of graphic innovation achieved by Toulouse-Lautrec and others, but using oils. In 1888 he painted at Pont-Aven for several months from mid August to early November, exploring aesthetic and theoretical innovations with Gauguin. This was his second trip: he had visited in August 1886, on a walking tour through Brittany, but had then found the older artist unreceptive. In 1888 Bernard carried an introduction to Gauguin from van Gogh, and his starkly drawn Breton women in the meadow 1888 fired Gauguin with new enthusiasm. This interest in Breton peasant life—Bernard also carved furniture and designed tapestries—continued after Pont-Aven, and The harvest is one of a group of canvases painted around the theme. Like Gauguin he also produced a portfolio of prints, Bretonneries, for the Volpini show at the time of the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris.
According to the artist’s inscription on the back, The harvest caused ‘great discord’ among the boarders at Pension Gloanec because of its novelty, simplicity and rawness.2 The absence of any spatial organisation is what makes Bernard’s painting so astounding; this ‘highly synthetic work is exemplary in its simplified and separate fields of colour’.3 The shapes used to define the harvesters and their surrounds are modulated only by the artist’s brushstrokes, and the traces of extra colour incorporated from an uncleaned brush. Outlined with blue-black, the figures stand out against the creamy-yellow background, the radical simplicity of their flattened forms played off against the dramatic diagonal of the hill, and the darker green trees, green landscape and blue sky. The second pair of harvesters, ankle-deep in wheat and bent over their task, becomes simple arabesques. Only the standing figure has a hand. And given that the hand is green—and would be more at home in the work of twentieth-century masters such as Picasso or Henri Matisse—we may well understand the concerns of the pensionnaires Gloanec.
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
- Judy and Charles-Guy Le Paul, Gauguin and the Impressionists at Pont-Aven, New York: Abbeville Press 1987, p. 50.
- Jean-Jacques Luthi, Emile Bernard: catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Paris: Éditions side 1982, cat. 121, p. 22.
- Anne Roquebert, ‘Emile Bernard: Breton landscape’, in Rebecca A. Rabinow (ed.), Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, patron of the avant-garde, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press 2006, p. 325.