The Wildenstein Institute will include this work in their forthcoming Gauguin catalogue critique.
Gauguin executed the pastel Petites Bretonnes devant la mer (II) in 1889, probably during the autumn, at Le Pouldu, in preparation for the well-known larger oil painting, in the museum collection of Prince Matsukata Kojiro, Tokyo (Wildenstein, no. 340; fig. 1). Both works are contemporary with some of Gauguin's finest and most famous Breton pictures, including Meyer de Haan; Nirvana, Portrait de Meyer de Haan (fig. 2); both versions of Bonjour M. Gauguin; Portrait charge de Gauguin ("Self Portrait with Halo," fig. 3); and La Plage au Pouldu (Wildenstein, nos. 317, 320, 321-322, 323 and 362, respectively). In these works Gauguin brought to its ultimate fruition his synthétiste approach to painting, in which he employed any and all elements of the fine, popular and decorative arts--past and present, from diverse cultures around the world--that suited his pictorial aims. He sought to probe the inner character and meaning of things that lay beyond the semblance of visual reality. "I wanted to try everything," he told the painter Maurice Denis, "to liberate the younger generation" (quoted in J. Rewald, Post Impressionism, New York, 1982, p. 279).
Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in early June 1889 for his third extended sojourn in Britanny. Since his first stay there in 1885, the town had become a flourishing artists' colony, attracting painters from all over Europe and America, and tourists as well, eager to experience the region's colorful traditional culture. The scene had become all too commercial and pretentious for Gauguin's taste, and he spent the month of August in Le Pouldu, a tiny village further down the coast, at the mouth of Quimper River, where people subsisted by fishing, collecting driftwood and seaweed. As Rewald has noted, "Here Gauguin came as close to a primitive way of life as he could ever expect to come in France" (ibid., p. 267).
The cost of living in Le Pouldu was far cheaper than in Pont-Aven, and this consideration became Gauguin's compelling reason for moving there. The Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste exhibition that opened in June 1889 at Volpini's Café des Arts in Paris, which included seventeen of Gauguin's pictures, had been a bitter disappointment for all involved both in terms of publicity and financial return. Gauguin was burdened with rapidly mounting debts. He later calculated that for the entire year of 1889 his sales totaled only 925 francs. From Le Pouldu Gauguin lamented to Émile Bernard: "At the age of 42, to live on that, to buy colours, etc., is enough to daunt the stoutest heart. It is not so much the privations now as that the future difficulties loom so high when we are low. In the face of the impossibility of living, even meanly, I do not know what to do" (quoted in M. Malingue, ed., Paul Gauguin: Letters to his Wife and Friends, Boston, 2003, no. 92, p. 129).
The young painter Paul Sérusier accompanied Gauguin that August, and thereafter Meyer de Haan--to whom Gauguin referred in correspondance as his "pupil"--joined him in Le Pouldu. The windswept desolation of the seaside landscape and the hard, austere lives of its inhabitants had a powerful effect on the moody Gauguin. He wrote to Émile Bernard, "I hope that this winter you will find in me a new Gauguin... What I am trying to get at is a corner of myself which I do not yet understand" (Letters, no. 84, p. 122).
Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven in late August, living there on credit for a while; but finally despairing of the place for good, he headed back to Le Pouldu in early October, again with de Haan. There they remained through the harshness of the winter, into early 1890. The two men rented rooms in the Buvette de la Plage, a small bar and hotel run by Marie Henry, an attractive 30-year-old single mother. De Haan rented a studio for their use in the nearby Villa Mauduit, on the edge of the dunes overlooking a broad expanse of strand known as Les Grands Sables. "When the storms rage," Gauguin wrote to Émile Schuffenecker, "it is magnificent" (Letters, no. 90, p. 127).
"This year I'm doing mostly farm children strolling by the sea with their cows." Gauguin wrote in late 1889 to Vincent van Gogh in Saint-Rémy. "I try to enfuse these desolate figures with the wildness I see in them, and which is also in me. Here in Brittany the country people have something medieval about them; they don't look for a moment as though they believe that Paris really exists, or that it is really 1889" (D. Cooper, ed., Paul Gauguin 45 lettres à Vincent, Theo et Jo van Gogh, Lausanne, 1983, nos. 36.2-36.3). In addition to the oil painting Petites Bretonnes devant la mer (I), Gauguin depicted one or two very young girls in four different landscape settings (Wildenstein, nos. 344, 345, 347 and 360). In both the present pastel and the related oil, "Gauguin has come closer to the shy, tight group of little girls, giving them a monumental dignity," Claire Frêches-Thory has written. "He has accentuated their awkwardness, turning their outsize bare feet [seen in the oil version] into a deliberately primitive image. He was to use this approach again in Tahiti" (The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, pp. 163-164).
In the mid-1990s a previously unknown gouache study of the right-hand girl came to light from a private collection, and was the subject of an article by Thea Burns and Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski (op. cit.). This gouache was subsequently sold at Christie's London in 2000 and again at Christie's New York in 2010 (fig. 4). The authors noted the existence of the present pastel, which they describe as "a full size cartoon [in conventional artist's practice, the final study] for the Tokyo painting. It, in turn, must have been based on smaller sketches or studies of the figures. Gauguin usually developed cartoons in the studio by posing models based on his field observations, noted in a sketchbook or drawn rapidly on loose sheets... The juxtaposition of the figures in the cartoon and the painting may indicate they originated in two separate studies" (op. cit., p. 184, fn 14). The pastel is missing the girls' ungainly feet perhaps for the reason that the artist was still working out this peculiar feature in further separate studies, from which he eventually derived the results seen in the Tokyo painting.
The sight of the two little girls, sadly pressing up against each other in the barren landscape, is affectingly poignant, and led Gauguin to title the oil painting Les deux pauvresses ("Two Pauper Girls") when he placed it on deposit with the Paris dealers Boussod and Valadon. Ambroise Vollard owned the painting until the 1930s, when he sold it to Prince Matsukata, the pioneering collector of Impressionist and Modern art in Japan.
Boutet de Monvel, Paul Gauguin Wearing a Breton Jacket, 1891. Musée departemental du Prieuré, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Petites Bretonnes devant la mer (I), 1889. National Museum of Western Art, Matsukata Collection, Tokyo.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Nirvana, Portrait de Meyer de Haan, 1889-1890. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.
fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Portrait charge de Gauguin, 1889. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Jeune Bretonne au bord de la mer, 1889. Sold, Christie's New York, 4 November 2010, lot 116.