Paul GAUGUIN | Breton peasant women [Paysannes bretonnes]

France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903

Breton peasant women
[Paysannes bretonnes]
oil on canvas
canvas 66.0 (h) x 92.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Max and Rosy Kaganovitch 1973
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Gauguin, born in 1848, was forty-six years old when he painted this work in 1894—twenty years older than the barely post-adolescent fellow-painter Emile Bernard, who had befriended him in Pont-Aven in 1886. It was this unlikely pair who would be the inspirational foundation for the group of artists who became known as the Nabis.

Gauguin and Bernard called their way of painting Synthetism. Its emphasis was on painting from memory, rather than from direct plein-air experience. Painting was not only a record of visual experience, but an expression of the artist’s emotional response to it. The typically heightened colour palette and formalised use of flat areas of colour, often with strong black Cloisonnist outlines, indicated a synthesis between the subject matter and the artist’s emotional response to it. Fundamental to Gauguin and Bernard’s idea was the notion of artistic interpretation, as opposed to the concept of representation, which lay at the heart of Impressionism.

Paintings such as Breton peasant women, with its expression of idyllic tranquillity, stand in stark contrast to the actual tempestuousness of Gauguin’s life and temperament. The work was painted during his second sojourn in or around Pont-Aven. In May 1894, after his two years in Tahiti, he had returned to the nearby town of Le Pouldu, in company with a very young woman called Annah la Javanaise, to whom he had been introduced by the Parisian entrepreneur and art aficionado Ambroise Vollard. His return to Le Pouldu was, however, emotionally, physically and financially fraught—Marie Meyer, the proprietor of the inn at which he had stayed prior to his departure for Tahiti, refused to return to him the paintings entrusted to her, claiming them as payment for unpaid lodgings. Then, in June 1894, Gauguin was set upon by a group of sailors in nearby Concarneau; his leg was badly broken and would never properly heal. In August, Annah left him to return to Paris, where she sold all of his furniture and belongings from his Paris apartment. (Fortunately she left his paintings.)

During this period of personal upheaval, Gauguin somehow found time to paint Breton peasant women, one of his few paintings from 1894. The Synthesist-style composition is highly orchestrated. The figures have been strategically placed in the landscape, without regard to perspectival authenticity—the two tiny figures in the middle-ground, for example, imply that the cottages in the background are disproportionately large, although we do not read the overall composition in this way. Breton peasant women displays the synthesis of influences—the Polynesian architecture of the women’s faces, the vividness of palette—that characterises Gauguin’s French paintings of this period. It is also interesting to note the echo of the face of the right-hand woman with Picasso’s famous 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Mark Henshaw

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