Gauguin painted Les Pêcheuses de goëmon ("The Kelp Gatherers") during the fall of 1889 in Le Pouldu, where he completed an impressive series of some his finest and best-known Breton pictures, including Portrait charge de Gauguin ("Self Portrait with Halo"; fig. 1); Meyer de Haan; Nirvana, Portrait de Meyer de Haan (fig. 2); both versions of Bonjour M. Gauguin, La Plage au Pouldu; and related to the subject of the present work, Ramasseuses de varech (II) ("The Seaweed Gatherers"; fig. 3) (Wildenstein, nos. 272, 317, 320, 321-322, 362, and 349 respectively). Over the course of the previous three years, Gauguin had evolved and brought to fruition his synthétiste approach to painting, in which he brought to bear whatever elements of high, popular and decorative arts, both past and present, from diverse cultures around the world, that would suit his purpose: 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, 3rd ed., New York, 1982, p. 279).
In June 1889 Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven for his third extended sojourn in Britanny. The character of the town was much changed since his first stay there in 1885. It was now a flourishing artists' colony, attracting painters from all over Europe and America, and tourists as well, all eager to experience the region's colorful traditional culture. Pont-Aven 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).
Living in Le Pouldu would be far cheaper than at Pont-Aven: this was actually Gauguin's compelling reason for moving there. The Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste exhibition that opened in June 1889 at Volpini's Caf des Arts in Paris, which included seventeen of Gauguin's pictures, had been a disappointment both in terms of publicity and financial return--it was in fact an utter disaster--nothing was sold, and the participants came away deeply demoralized. 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, p. 129, no. 92).
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 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, to live there on credit for a while, but finally despairing of the place, 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. "When the storms rage," he wrote to Émile Schuffenecker, "it is magnificent" (Letters, no. 90, p. 127). The two men had taken rooms in the Buvette de la Plage, a small bar and hotel run by Marie Henry, an attractive 30-year-old unmarried woman known as "Poupée" ("Doll"), who had a young daughter. De Haan rented a studio for their use in the nearby Villa Mauduit, on the edge of the dunes overlooking a desolate beach known as Les Grands Sables.
This is the setting of Les Pêcheuses de goëmon. Two women clad in protective cold-weather bonnets wield their rakes to gather the kelp that has drifted up on the strand. The heavy surf of the stormy Atlantic breaks behind him. In true synthetiste style, derived in large part from the example of Japanese prints, Gauguin has closely cropped the space around the two figures, who are seen by contrast back and front--their gyrating motions oppose each other in a see-saw pattern, as if they were engaged in a ritual dance. The foreground figures and marine backdrop have been telescoped into the appearance of single flattened plane. The figures' contours and the stylization of the breaking waves create an interplay of arabesques; as Claire Frèches-Thory has observed,"here we are on the brink of art nouveau" (exh. cat., op. cit, 1988, p. 179). This small painting incorporates a symbolic dimension concerning the struggle between humankind and nature that lends it an expansive and timeless sense of place. Notwithstanding his synthétiste transformation of the scene, Gauguin took great care to get the details right: there are studies for the women's bonnets and bodices in his 1888 sketchbook (R. Huyghe, Le Carnet de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1952, pp. 89 and 91). There is a related preliminary study for this composition (R. Pickvance, The Drawings of Gauguin, London, 1970, no. 45).
Both Gauguin and de Haan became extremely fond of Marie Henry. She and de Haan became lovers, and she became pregnant by him. The jealous Gauguin was left to carry on a relationship with the chambermaid. Both artists hung their pictures on the dining room walls of the Maison Marie Henry. When Gauguin returned to Le Pouldu during the summer of 1890, he painted the ceiling, and with his colleagues Sérusier and Charles Filiger provided other decorations for the room (fig. 4). Those works which remained behind when they departed were photographed and listed in 1895. The identity and placement of each work in the room was recorded and published in 1920. As Claire Frèches-Thory has noted, "Henri Mothère, the husband of Marie-Henry, had confirmed the presence of a series of gouaches and their exact position on the wall: '...to the left, all along the wall, were painted cardboard panels, two lithographs on yellow paper,...a little canvas..'" She has furthermore written that "This gouache, with the title Les Pêcheuses de goëmon, was almost certainly one of the works that decorated Marie Henry's inn at Le Pouldu... A published list of the photographs of works by Gauguin that were once in the hands of Marie Henry's heirs includes this gouache, as no. 17" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, pp. 179 and 180).
Boutet de Monvel, Paul Gauguin Wearing a Breton Jacket, 1891. Musée departemental du Prieuré, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Portrait charge de Gauguin, 1889. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection, Washington, DC.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Nirvana, Portrait de Meyer de Haan, 1889-1890. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Ramasseuses de varech (II), 1889. Museum Folkwang, Essen.
(fig. 4) Proposed reconstruction of the dining room of the Buvette de la Plage. Photograph courtesy of the Association des amis de la Maison Marie Henry, Le Pouldu.