Paysannes Bretonnes epitomizes Bernard's work of the late 1880s when he was at the apex at of his engagement with the most advanced currents in French painting. He was still in his 'teens and a student at Cormon's atelier libre in Paris, when in 1887, he and his classmate Louis Anquetin developed the radical pictorial style known as cloisonism. The young critic Edouard Dujardin coined the term in an article about Anquetin published in the 1 March 1888 issue of La Revue indépendante; it referred to the medieval technique of firing ground colored glass in a metal framework that outlined the design. Dujardin noted similarities to the methods of Japanese woodblock print-making, and old French popular woodcuts known as images d'epinal, in which "the artists first trace lines within which are placed colours according to the colour-pattern process" (quoted in B. Welsh Ocharov, Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1981, p. 24).
Bernard was upset that Dujardin had given Anquetin full credit for this new development without mentioning his own contribution. Bernard maintained that he had arrived at cloisonism through his study of Japanese prints. Vincent van Gogh, who had known Bernard in Cormon's atelier and was then painting in Arles, noted in a June 1888 letter to his brother Theo that "in the Japanese style young Bernard has perhaps gone further than Anquetin" (LT 500). It was on the recommendation of van Gogh that Paul Gauguin agreed to welcome Bernard in Pont-Aven, when the young painter traveled there with his mother and sister Madeleine in August 1888. Gauguin initially met Bernard in September 1886, during Bernard's first trip to Brittany, when the aspiring teenaged artist toured the region on foot. At that time, Bernard had carried a letter of introduction from Gauguin's close friend Claude Emile Schuffenecker, but Gauguin had received him guardedly. This time, however, the two painters hit it off well. They were now both working toward similar goals and enthusiastically exchanged their ideas. Moreover, Gauguin was attracted to Bernard's sister, who later became engaged to Charles Laval, the painter who had accompanied Gauguin to Martinique in 1886, and who was also in Pont-Aven during 1888. Nancy Mowll Mathews has written, "Gauguin was energized by Bernard's forceful rejection of the old tenets of naturalism and his desire to found an art based on completely new principles, which Bernard wanted to call pictorial symbolism. Gauguin had preached the same message himself. But even though Bernard was mostly confirming ideas that Gauguin already held, it is surprising how swiftly Gauguin assimilated Bernard's new verbal and pictorial language. A new force had definitely taken hold of the old P Go" (in Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life, New Haven, 2001, pp. 107-108).
The results of these discussions soon became manifest in the work of both painters. In September 1888, Gauguin painted La vision après le sermon (Wildenstein, no. 308; The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), while Bernard during this time completed Les bretonnes dans le prairie (Luthi, no. 114), and Le blé noir (Luthi, no. 123; fig. 1). Each of these works display outlined forms and flat areas of color. Bernard's Le blé noir even shares the red background bisected by a tilted tree seen in Gauguin's famous picture. Gauguin exhorted Bernard to press forward. In a letter to his young friend dated October 1888, Gauguin wrote, "You hold all the trumps in your hand. With foot in stirrup betimes, you will arrive fully armed and in all the vigour of youth at the moment when the blocked road has been cleared in great part. You are extraordinarily gifted, and painting now, you will undoubtably arrive." (in M. Malingue, ed., Paul Gauguin, Letters to his Wife and Friends, Boston, 2003, p. 101).
Gauguin called his coterie the Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste --he was careful to avoid terms like symbolisme and cloisonnisme, in order to demonstrate his central role in guiding these new tendencies--and he organized an exhibition of their paintings, drawings and prints at Volpini's Café des Arts in May 1889, coinciding with the Paris Exposition Universelle. Bernard was the largest contributor with more than twenty works. Among them was a series of hand-colored zincographs titled Les Bretonneries, which were probably done in Paris in early 1889, while Gauguin was working on his own series of prints on Breton and Martiniquaise subjects, his so-called Volpini Suite. Bernard probably painted Paysannes Bretonnes around this time. The poses of the Breton women are related to those in the print Femmes étendant du linge, in which an apple tree appears in the background. While Bernard's guiding interests in this painting and the prints were largely formal, using radically flat color forms from which even shadows have been removed, there is nonetheless an accompanying symbolism in the autumn apple harvest (used to make the cheap hard cider the artists liked to drink) as a reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden.
In contrast to the loosely expressive and improvised brushwork seen in Le blé noir of the previous year, Bernard adopted a more systematic approach in Paysannes Bretonnes. Here he utilizes small vertical brushstrokes, with subtle modulations in hue, among adjacent marks, which create tremulous chromatic surfaces within the tonal zones of the composition. Gauguin used a similar method in many of his Pont-Aven paintings, and it is also related to the brushwork that Paul Cézanne--an artist whom Gauguin and Bernard greatly admired--had used in his landscapes since the late 1870s. In its carefully balanced composition, the realization of its subject and assured execution, Paysannes Bretonnes projects the full potential of Bernard's visionary, synthetist approach to painting at this crucial juncture in the collaborative development of Post-Impressionism, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that he was not yet twenty-one when he painted it.
(fig. 1) Emile Bernard, Le blé noir, 1888; Josefowitz Collection
(fig. 1) Emile Bernard, Femmes étendant du linge, 1889, zincograph