Béatrice Recchi-Altarriba has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Trois Bretonnes sous un pommier is a stunning example of Bernard’s revisitation of a theme which had epitomized his work of the late 1880s-early 1890s: that of the Breton culture and landscape. 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 Indepéndante–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 colors according to the color-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).
It was on the recommendation of Vincent van Gogh that Paul Gauguin agreed to welcome Bernard in Pont-Aven, the site of the present work, 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 artists got on well. They were now both working toward similar goals and enthusiastically exchanged their ideas. 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" (Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life, New Haven, 2001, pp. 107-108).
In 1939, Bernard returned to Pont-Aven, now a mature and established painter, to unveil a plaque at the Pension Gloanec, where he had resided with Gauguin in his youth. The artist stayed for nearly two years, reinvigorated by the landscape: “Since I have been in Pont-Aven, I am ignoring time” he wrote (quoted in F. Leeman, Emile Bernard, Paris, 2013, p. 484). As seen in the present work, Bernard exhibited a certain nostalgia for the synthetic style of his youth. While his guiding interests 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 used to drink) as a reference to Eve in the Garden of Eden. In its carefully balanced composition, the realization of its subject and assured execution, Trois Bretonnes sous un pommier projects the full potential of Bernard's visionary, synthetist approach to painting.