Please note that the following work has been requested for the exhibition Gauguin and Impressionism: Paintings, Sculpture, and Ceramics, 1875-1887 to be held at Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen from August-November 2005; and Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth from December 2005-March 2006.
The present picture is one of the largest and most complex paintings that Gauguin made during his first trip to Brittany in the summer of 1886, a watershed moment in his career. Seeking to escape the urban culture of Paris and to "make art in a backwater," as he explained to the engraver Félix Bracquemond, Gauguin settled in Pont-Aven, a rural market town in the valley of the Aven River (quoted in R. Brettell, et al., The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 54). Travelers, artists, and writers had been drawn for decades to this remote, seemingly uncivilized area of France, with its picturesque moors, primitive monuments, and Celtic legends. In 1840, the English author Thomas Adolphus Trollope noted, "There alone can the painter encounter the savage and thrilling majesty of nature, untainted by any trace of modernity and dotted with Druid, religious, and feudal ruins, like the scattered pages of a forgotten tale" (quoted in ibid., p. 54). Gauguin himself described the region's appeal in similar terms: "I like Brittany, it is savage and primitive. The flat sound of my wooden clogs on the cobblestones, deep, hollow, and powerful, is the note I seek in my painting" (quoted in ibid., p. 55). The four trips that Gauguin made to Brittany between 1886 and 1894 indeed proved critical to his artistic evolution. The curators of a recent exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art have written:
Gauguin's journey to the western peninsula of Brittany counted for much more than the three hundred miles actually traversed. It was in this remote region of France that the shape and content of his art became defined. In the small villages of Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, Gauguin's pictures turned into moody, downright quirky, creations only loosely tied to distinctive local sights. The shapes of things were exaggerated or crudely simplified, boldly outlined, and filled in with vivid pools of color. In Brittany, Gauguin discovered the wellspring of his art: his intense desire to capture the soul of a naive culture. From then on, his steps were guided by this impulse, which carried him to the South Seas (C. Ives and S.A. Stein, The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, pp. 29-31).
Gauguin arrived at Pont-Aven in June 1886 and rented a room at the Pension Gloanec, an inexpensive inn that housed a sizable colony of artists. He was pleased with his new surroundings, writing to his wife, Mette, in mid-July, "I'm working hard here, with a good deal of success; I am considered the best painter in Pont-Aven, though this does not earn me a penny more. But it could in the future. In any case, I am respected and everyone here clamors for my advice" (quoted in R. Brettell, op. cit., p. 55). Fascinated by the insular Breton community, with its somber rituals of work and prayer, Gauguin produced at least twenty paintings during his three-month stay. Some of these are canvases of considerable spontaneity painted from nature, while a few, including the present example, are larger and more carefully structured compositions with multiple figures (fig. 1). Although the technique and palette of the paintings from 1886 remain Impressionist, the simplified contours and tilted perspective in the present painting presage the bold compositional experiments that Gauguin would undertake during his second trip to Pont-Aven in 1888.
Vaches au bord de la mer depicts the eastern end of Bellangenet cove, a rocky inlet near the coastal hamlet of Le Pouldu, about fifty kilometers east of Pont-Aven. A fishing village of only one hundred and fifty inhabitants, Le Pouldu was much wilder and more desolate than Pont-Aven. Gauguin took excursions there during his first two trips to Brittany in 1886 and 1888, and made it his permanent base from June 1889 until November 1890. The coast at Le Pouldu was distinguished by les roches noires, clusters of craggy rocks encrusted with black mussels and seaweed that jutted out from the white-capped waves. In the present painting, a Breton peasant woman, wearing an apron and dark headdress (known as a coiffe) and accompanied by her young son, tends two cows on the windswept beach at the base of a steep promontory. The overcast sky and turbulent sea hint at the harshness of life in the region. In a letter to Van Gogh dated 1889, Gauguin described a similar scene: "What I've concentrated on this year is simply peasant children strolling unconcernedly along the shore with their cows. I'm trying to put into these dreary figures the wildness I see in them, which is in me too. There is something medieval looking about the peasants here in Brittany; they don't look as though they suspect for a moment that Paris exists or that it's 1889. As I look at this every day, I suddenly sense the struggle to survive" (quoted in C. Ives and S.A. Stein, op. cit., p. 69). The artist Paul Sérusier, who joined Gauguin at Le Pouldu in the autumn of 1889, was struck by the same motif, describing to Maurice Denis "the little girls in rags, yellow, skinny and strong, who keep their cows on the great rocky cliffs among piles of seaweed" (quoted in E.M. Zafra, op. cit., p. 21).
Gauguin made two other seascapes in 1886, both in the vicinity of Le Pouldu (Wildenstein nos. 235-236; Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Sweden, and Private collection). In 1889, he painted a view of Bellangenet cove from almost the same angle as the present picture (fig. 2). The artist Maxime Maufra, who met Gauguin at Pont-Aven in 1890 and was deeply influenced by his work, also painted a scene of the distinctive rocky outcroppings that encircle the cove (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes).
The first owner of the present picture was the Danish painter and art critic Johan Rohde (1856-1935), the founder of the association Den Frie Udstilling, which organized exhibitions of non-academic art in Copenhagen during the late 19th century. Rohde had seen the painting in the home of Gauguin's wife, Mette, and had spoken enthusiastically about it. In a letter dated 20 May 1892, Mette suggested to Rohde that he take the picture in exchange for one of Rohde's own that she had seen and admired at the Frie Udstilling exhibition earlier that year. Rohde loaned his new acquisition to the Frie Udstilling show in 1893, which included fifty paintings, sculptures, and ceramics by Gauguin. Vaches au bord de la mer hung for many years over Rohde's bed in Nyhavn (fig. 3) and remained in his family's collection until 1960. In the catalogue of a recent exhibition devoted to the 1893 Frie Udstilling show, Merete Bodelson noted, "Through having been in Denmark for so many years and having been accessible in Johan Rohde's home, which an important circle of Scandinavian artists frequented, the picture influenced a number of Nordic artists of the period" (op. cit, exh. cat., Copenhagen, 1984, p. 68).
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, La gardeuse des vaches, 1886. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, United Kingdom.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, La côte de Bellangenet, 1889. Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts.
(fig. 3) The present painting in the home of Johan Rohde.