17. Introducing Pont-Aven
Updated: Jun 7
You may have heard of Pont-Aven, or of the Pont-Aven School. Pont-Aven is a village near the coast in Brittany, on the western edge of France. The School of Pont-Aven is the name art historians have given to the painters who worked there from about 1886. The leading figure of the school? Paul Gauguin. Gauguin visited Pont-Aven regularly between 1886 and 1894. The work he did there, and the artists who painted alongside him, are central to our story. We'll spend the next few posts getting to know the village and its residents.
By 1879, a train ran once a day from Paris to Finistère, Land's End, at the eastern edge of Brittany. The 330 mile trip, if all went well, would take around 14 hours--almost three hours longer than it takes me to cover the 5,500 mile distance from SFO to Paris-Charles de Gaulle on an airplane. The cost of the 1879 journey varied almost as much as the cost of airfare does today: it was anywhere from 54 francs to 3 francs, depending on how comfortable you could afford to be. Regardless of what you paid, the journey halfway across France was longer and more teeth-rattling than the worst seat in the rear of a modern airplane. When you arrived at last, you had left the pavement of Paris behind and stepped into another world.
Henry Blackburn was a 19th century English Rick Steves. He even urged "the modern tourist" to "diverge from the beaten track." He wrote travel books about France Spain, and Algeria; books that focused on the charming and picturesque, that pointed visitors towards the right sort of hotels and the walks with the best views. In 1879 Blackburn published Breton Folk: An Artistic Tour of Brittany based on three summers of traveling the region. Here's how he introduced Brittany:
Nowhere in France are there finer peasantry; nowhere do we see more dignity of aspect in field labour, more nobility of feature amongst men and women; nowhere more picturesque ruins; nowhere such primitive habitations and, it must be added, such dirt.
Even Breton dirt was worth a mention. Brittany was almost another land unto itself, with its "inhabitants...standing apart, as it were, from the rest of France, preserving their own customs and traditions, speaking their own language, singing their own songs, and dancing their own dances in the streets in 1879." At a time when the railways were expanding and the urban middle classes could now begin to consider something like pleasure travel, Blackburn assured his readers that Brittany would be worth the detour. Here was a place that was original, different, striking. "Brittany," he emphasized for those who were slow on the uptake, " is still behindhand in civilisation, the land is only half cultivated and divided into small holdings, and the fields ares strewn with Druidical stones." The women of the region wore "white caps and wide collars"and it was common still to wear heavy wooden clogs.
Brittany, for all these reasons, was "essentially the land of the painter," providing "better opportunities for outdoor study, and more suggestive scenes..." And Blackburn was right. The first rail line connected Quimper, one of the region's largest towns, with Paris in 1862. Tourists began to make the long excursion, and it wasn't long before artists joined the mix. The Breton village that drew artists more than others was Pont-Aven, a town of about 2000 souls perched on and around the banks of the Aven river, four miles inland from the ocean.
The first artists who came were wandering Americans who painted the rocky countryside and the locals in their quaint costumes. Frederick Arthur Bridgman left New York to study art in Paris in the mid-1860s and soon found himself painting women in stiff white caps and wide collars, wearing their sabots, their heavy wooden clogs. The word spread; more painters came. Even some French turned up. Berthe Morisot visited for a few summers in the 1860s before the style of painting she was pioneering earned its name of Impressionism. William Bouguereau came at the end of the decade and made sketches from which he later painted his version of Breton tourist art: a young woman in the traditional cap and collar holding her brother in her lap.
By the time Blackburn published his book in 1881, Pont-Aven was a well-known center for artists. He described the village as having "a little triangular Place" on one edge of which stood the Hôtel des Voyageurs, "a popular hostelry...principally supported by American artists..." although English and French had stayed there, too, and left "contributions in the shape of oil paintings on the panels of the salle à manger." At five francs a day for room and board, the Voyageurs was a little too elegant for some of the less established artists. They tended more towards the Pension Gloanec.
Blackburn described the inn as:
...the true Bohemian home at Pont-Aven, where living is even more moderate...here the panels of the rooms are also decorated with works of art, and here, in the evening, and in the morning, seated round a table in the road, dressed in the easy bourgeois fashion of the country, may be seen artists...
At sixty francs a month for room and board, the Pension Gloanec was the best deal in town. Marie-Jeanne Gloanec owned the hotel. The American painter Birge Harrison, who spent a few summers there, described her as "an excellent cook" who "took great pleasure in the company of her artists."
Blackburn traveled in Brittany researching his book for two summers with the illustrator Randolph Caldecott. Caldecott, a successful English artist and illustrator, had been visiting Brittany regularly for years to sketch the quaintly costumed residents. Caldecott observed that "on observing Pont-Aven,
Caldecott was as charming an artist as he was a writer. His work for children's classics such as Aesop's Fables and various editions of nursery rhymes are filled with clever, specific details; they set a standard for illustration. The Caldecott Medal, created in 1937 for "the most distinguished American picture book for children," was named for him. But reknown did not only come to Caldecott after his death. Artists who were his contemporaries respected his work and emulated it. The English artist Archibald Standish Hartrick recalled a summer afternoon in Pont-Aven when he sat outside the Pension Gloanec talking art and artists with another traveler. Hartrick's companion that afternoon "expressed great admiration for the drawings of Randolph Caldecott, whose children's books he had. That, he said, was real drawing expressive of character and of life, as distinct from the machines made in the studio."
This admirer of Caldecott was Paul Gauguin.