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
Returning from Tahiti in August 1893, an almost penniless Gauguin arrived in Marseilles. His friend from his Pont-Aven days, the artist Sérusier, wired him 250 francs to make his way by train to Paris. There Gauguin held a sale of his art, mostly canvases from Tahiti, at the Gallery Durand-Ruel in November. This proved to be financially disastrous. Despite some monetary respite from an inheritance, in the northern spring of 1894 (probably at the end of April), Gauguin returned to Brittany in search of inspiration and a simpler, less costly life.
It was there he began painting Breton village in the snow, before leaving for Paris once again, on 14 November 1894. Whether Breton village in the snow was a scene drawn principally from Gauguin’s imagination or was painted when the region experienced snowfalls during his stay, has been a matter of debate.1 The painting was found on an easel in his studio at Papeete at the time of his death on 8 May 1903. It was unsigned and undated, and it appears that he had taken the painting on his second trip to Tahiti with the idea of continuing to work on the canvas there.
There has been a long tradition in European art of snow-scapes, from medieval times onwards. The Impressionist group of painters, notably Monet, Sisley and Pissarro all favoured the subject as they sought to capture the effects of winter’s snow on the landscape under changing light and different weather conditions. Gauguin continued this interest, creating several canvases of snowfalls, but his interpretation of Breton village in the snow was less transitory in appearance. Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige, in particular, were also influential; their strong contours, simplified shapes and flattened two dimensional space also provided a visual cue in the depiction of a landscape buried in snow.2
Breton village in the snow is devoid of any narrative or human interest that might be found in the work of Gauguin’s Impressionist contemporaries. Indeed, the artist’s landscape of the Breton village scene set in the Lollichon field is without life—no villagers or farmer and no animals. X-radiography and infrared tests indicate that Gauguin actually edited out an animal in profile to the left of the foreground, and a human figure to the right.
In Breton village in the snow Gauguin has produced a bleak landscape of bold forms and strong outlines set in an ice-chilled light. The artist has created heavy contours for the snow-covered thatch roofed houses of the village, the central Gothic style church steeple and the stark appearance of the tree trunks in this barren landscape. The high horizon line, with the far-off view of smoking chimney stacks and wild clouds, all evoke a sense of drama and bitter cold in a barren winter. It is both austere and forsaken.
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
- For example, Eliza E. Rathbone in Charles S. Moffett, Eliza E. Rathbone, Katherine Rothkopf et al., Impressionists in winter: effets de neige, Washington: The Phillips Collection in collaboration with Philip Wilson Publishers 1998, p. 204; Charles F. Stuckey in Stephen F. Eisenman (ed.), Paul Gauguin: artists of myth and dream, Milan: Skira 2007, p. 380.
- Utagawa Hiroshige, Kambara: Snow in the evening, quoted by Yann le Pichon and I. Mark Paris (trans.), Gauguin: life, art, inspiration, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1986, p. 193.