Petit baigneur Breton is a wonderfully subtle amalgamation of typical late Impressionist Pont-Avennois tropes with new Bretonnian Synthetism, and indicative of 1888 as a pivotal moment in Gauguin's stylistic development. According to Daniel Wildenstein in his new catalogue raisonné, Gauguin: Premier itinéraire d'un sauvage, the present lot was executed after the famous pastel drawing of the same subject from the same year (fig. 1). The contours of the figure and the dimensions of the face are very similar in each case. The vividly expressionistic and spontaneous appearance of the painting is thus revealed to be a quite deliberate application of colors. Where the pastel is a soft and intimate portrait consistent with Impressionist themes and handling, Petit baigneur Breton utilizes the harsher outlines and anti-naturalistic coloration that would come to typify Gauguin's later cloisonnist style.
The Impressionist movement experienced a schism in 1886, producing two diametrically opposed styles. Traditional optical Impressionism culminated in the development of the Divisionist movement, exemplified by Seurat's masterpiece Un dimanche d'été à l'île de la Grande Jatte (coll. The Art Institute of Chicago). The second group pursued a more imaginative and anti-literal form of expression that would come to be known as Synthetism and inaugurate the Symbolist movement at the end of the century. Led by Louis Anquetin and Emile Bernard, the Synthetists advocated the theory of "suggestive color," which they applied in conjunction with a cloisonnist technique to produce works of simple designs, composed of contrasting monochromatic blocks of color each outlined in think black or blue lines. As Judy Le Paul has observed:
The Breton landscape and atmosphere encouraged the development of this new style. The groves of small trees that formed a dark linear border around the colored masses of Breton fields and orchards lent themselves quite naturally to cloisonnism, while the granite masses of this area suggested a universe situated outside both space and time (in Gauguin and the Impressionists at Pont-Aven, New York, 1983, p. 20).
However, the rise of the Synthetists would prove short-lived. A wide range of Impressionists from both groups had simultaneously descended on Brittany in 1886, and the two movements coexisted for some time. But Gauguin himself eventually rejected Synthetism, admonishing Claude-Emile Schuffenecker in the process, "Be an Impressionist to the end and don't worry about anything" (quoted in ibid., p. 21). He met Paul Sérusier soon thereafter who would originate the Nabi movement.
Petit baigneur Breton is one in a series of paintings of Breton bather boys (see D. Wildenstein, nos. 297, 298 and 299) all of which were similarly conceived and executed. Gauguin would begin with an elegant monochromatic drawing, which he would later fill in with the vibrant hues and twisting, expressive brushstrokes evident here. Painted in deep indigo blues and wild pthalo greens, Petit baigneur Breton appears to literally equate the surface of the child's skin and his surroundings as a direct expression of his interior landscape. In the simple hunch of the shoulders and inwardly directed gaze, Gauguin conveys both a prescient sense of modernity as an exploration of interiority and psychology, and a surprisingly raw characterization of youth as a bestial state of nature. As Daniel Wildenstein summarizes:
The little panel was not, then, painted from life, despite its apparent spontaneity. The extremity of its manner--the raw blue, green and red tones of the flesh; the blue outline; the broad area of green in the background; the abnormal proportions of the boy's right arm--all suggest how insistently Gauguin was pushing back the borders of Impressionist technique, without yet escaping from it...The immense, red, pointed ears--deliberately exaggerated relative to the pastel--make the boy into a child of nature. His expression at once pensive and instinct with life, he is captured as if in motion, his animal poetry on the frontiers of the real and the supernatural (op. cit., p. 413).
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Petit Breton, circa 1888. Private Collection.