Émile BERNARD | Breton women with umbrellas [Les bretonnes aux ombrelles]

France 1868 – 1941

Breton women with umbrellas
[Les bretonnes aux ombrelles]
oil on canvas
canvas 81.0 (h) x 105.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1955
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In 1886, at the age of eighteen, Bernard set off on a walking trip through Normandy and Brittany. There he met Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven, at the recommendation of Emile Schuffenecker. Two years later, in a letter from Arles dated 20 June 1888, van Gogh proposed that Bernard meet again with the older artist: ‘Gauguin too is bored at Pont-Aven and complains like you of his isolation. Why not go and see him?’1 Bernard did so. He was just twenty years old and brimming with new theories and ideas about how to make art.

It was at Pont-Aven that Bernard painted a canvas, Breton women in a meadow, which, according to the artist, preceded Gauguin’s radical painting Vision of the sermon (Jacob wrestling with the angel).2 The two artists worked together, along with Louis Anquetin and Paul Sérusier, developing a style which came to be known as ‘Cloisonismé’, or Cloisonnism—a term coined by the critic Edouard Dujardin when reviewing the art of Anquetin in his essay for La Revue indépendante, 1 March 1888. Cloisonnism abandoned three-dimensional modelling for flatter two dimensional forms with heavy dark outlines. It was a style that shunned naturalism and adopted a more symbolic focus, assuming a brighter palette in order to express human emotion. It was, in part, inspired by Gothic art (particularly stained-glass and enamel work) and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, in vogue amongst many artists of the Pont-Aven school.

The close artistic collaboration between Bernard and Gauguin ended in 1891, when Gauguin was described as the founder of the evolving Pont-Aven movement.3 Bernard considered this role rightfully his. Bernard’s sister Madeleine accused Gauguin of reneging on his promise to exhibit together with Bernard before he left for Tahiti: ‘you are a traitor, you have broken your pledge and done the greatest harm to my brother, who is the real initiator of the art that you claim as being your own’.4

Breton women with umbrellas was made the year after this rift. It is one of a series of paintings created in bold outlines and colours which extend Bernard’s monumental style of the late 1880s and signal his claim to be the originator of what he called ‘pictorial symbolism’. The canvas reveals Bernard’s continuing fascination with Gothic art and adds to the exotic perception of Breton women as timeless and immutable beings, living simple pious lives. The artist has depicted these figures in simplified forms and bold colours, and placed them within an almost two-dimensional village backdrop. Bernard came to admire these women, and frequently represented them as figures of devotion, as if they had stepped out of the art of the medieval ages.

Jane Kinsman

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

  1. Quoted in Douglas Lord (ed. and trans.), Letters to Emile Bernard, New York: Museum of Modern Art 1938, p. 40.
  2. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.
  3. In an article by Albert Aurier, ‘Le Symbolisme en peinture—Paul Gauguin’, Mercure de France, March 1891, pp. 159–64.
  4. Henri Dorra, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 6 series, vol. 45, April 1955, p. 244.