Bretonne de profil à droite, is a large and highly finished study for the young woman at the far left in Gauguin's painting Bretonnes causant, 1886 (Wildenstein no. 237; fig 1). This drawing has been in the collection of the late Christian Fischbach for forty years, during which time it was exhibited only twice, including the landmark 1988 Gauguin retrospective shown in Paris, Washington D.C., and Chicago.
Gauguin executed this drawing during his first stay in the small Breton market village of Pont-Aven, which lasted from July to mid-October, 1886. It was there that Gauguin began to take the crucial turn in the evolution of his art away from his earlier use of an Impressionist technique, towards a more radically modern, subjective and symbolist manner, using flat forms of colour and strongly defined linear contours. This new style, which Gauguin called Synthétisme, emerged in its full-fledged form a couple of years later, in 1888, during the artist's second stay in Brittany.
Pont-Aven had been a popular summer destination since the early 1870s for artists who worked, studied and exhibited in Paris, including many from other European countries and America. Artists were drawn to the area's rugged landscape and its proximity to maritime views, the temperate climate that encouraged plein air painting, the picturesque traditional costumes of the local women - as seen in the present drawing - and not least for its inexpensive cost of living. Gauguin's first stay in Pont-Aven proved to be a productive period for the artist; he painted around twenty pictures, including La baignade au Moulin du Bois d'Amour (W 221; Museum of Art, Hiroshima) and La bergère bretonne (W 233; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK)). On the strength of his developing ideas about painting and his increasingly innovative technique, he soon became a leading and influential figure among his fellow painters.
Wildenstein notes that Gauguin likely painted Bretonnes causant while back in Paris during the winter of 1886, using this study as a guide, as well as three other drawings he made at Pont-Aven, each of which depict one of the women in the painting (see illustrations in Wildenstein, p. 301). All four drawings are similar in size and technique; two of them, like the present drawing, are in private hands, and the other is in the Burrell Collection of the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum. The young woman in Bretonne de profil à droite is wearing the traditional Breton dress, with its signature broad collar and the large, white, winged headdress known as a coiffe bretonne. Although the identity of Gauguin's model remains unknown, she was likely one of the maids who worked at the Auberge Gloanec (fig. 2), the inn, 'the true Bohemian home at Pont-Aven,' where the artist took lodging during his stay. Gauguin drew this and the other studies from life, and adhered to them closely while painting the canvas, which is notable for the way in which the rhythmical figures of the four women, standing three-quarter length, form arabesques that fill the composition, leaving only a narrow band along the upper edge for the landscape background.
The style and technique of Bretonne de profil à droite clearly reveal the influence of Gauguin's two acknowledged contemporary masters, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas. Both the rural subject and the use of hatching in the pastel to convey mass are indebted to Pissarro's studies of peasant women, while the unusual pose of the figure, with her profile glanced from over her shoulder, recall Degas's drawings of ballerinas viewed from unconventional angles, and cropped at less than full length. The key element in this drawing, however, which would hold significant implications for the future development of Synthétisme, is Gauguin's use of an agile and expressive line; Claire Frèches-Thory has noted 'already evident here is Gauguin's tendency to establish firm outlines' (in exh. cat., 1988, op. cit.). She also points out that 'The repertoire of forms perfected in 1886 was to serve the artist again during his second stay in Brittany in 1888' (ibid.). The foreground figure in Bretonnes au tournant d'une route, 1888 (W 271; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen), for example, was derived from another study done during the artist's first sojourn in Pont-Aven (see illustration in Wildenstein, p. 379), which is closely related to the present drawing.
The present drawing bears a dedication in Gauguin's hand to a 'M[onsieur] Newman.' As Frechèches-Thory has suggested, he may have been an American painter visiting Pont-Aven at the time; however, his precise identity and relationship to Gauguin cannot be ascertained.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Bretonnes causant, 1886. Neue Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich; © Neue Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich.
(fig. 2) The Auberge Gloanec with Marie-Jeanne Gloanec and her staff. Musée de Pont-Aven.