Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Breton Woman with Child

Emile Bernard

On 6 April 1886, the young Emile Bernard (1868–1941) set out on a long walk through Brittany in search of new motifs. He would not return home until 6 October, exactly six months later. He called this journey his voyage à pied. Along the way, he drew frequently and by his own account made over a hundred sketches in one month. For these many drawings he used at least three sketchbooks, which unfortunately have since been taken apart. The surviving sheets, and his paintings, reveal that the artist initially concentrated primarily on the landscape.


However, the focus of Bernard’s artistic exploration changed upon his arrival in Pont-Aven on 15 August 1886. He began to direct his attention more towards the human figure, as seen in the paintings Young Breton Woman in Pont-Aven and Boy Sitting in the Grass, as well as this drawing depicting a Breton woman with a child on her lap. Interestingly, Bernard actually happened upon Pont-Aven by accident. Originally, he had planned to continue his journey further south, all the way to Nantes. But fate intervened when, by chance, he encountered Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) painting en plein air on the beach at Concarneau. The two struck up a conversation, and upon Schuffenecker’s recommendation Bernard decided to make his way to Pont-Aven. Schuffenecker gave him a letter of introduction that allowed him to make his acquaintance with Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who had been staying there since mid-July.

Bernard was impressed by Gauguin, and it was probably under the older painter’s influence that his interest in depicting the human figure intensified. Finding models in Pont-Aven was relatively easy, as the local population recognized the financial benefits of posing for artists. In fact, the presence of many artists there during the summer months had been an annual occurrence since 1860. Women strolled about daily in their traditional attire and were willing to sit for portraits in exchange for a small fee.

Gauguin, in particular, frequently sketched these women, always in chalk and with thick outlines. Although he paid great attention to capturing the clothing, he often portrayed the faces of the women in a more sketchy or schematic manner. Occasionally, he embellished his drawings with touches of colour ( and ).

Paul Gauguin, Breton Woman in Profile with Study of a Hand, 1886, black and coloured chalk on paper, 46.5 × 32 cm, private collection. Photo: © 2007 Christie’s Images Limited

Paul Gauguin, Breton Woman in Profile with Study of a Hand, 1886, black and coloured chalk on paper, 46.5 × 32 cm, private collection. Photo: © 2007 Christie’s Images Limited

Pen and ink

Following Gauguin’s lead, Bernard also began using the services of the Pont-Aven locals, resulting in various drawings, including Breton Woman with Child. He adopted a process similar to Gauguin’s, albeit using pen and black ink instead of black chalk. He would begin by drawing the contours, and then use chalk to colour in specific areas, such as the woman’s dress and face and the child’s sun hat in this drawing. Finally, he applied hatching in ink on the blue chalk of the woman’s dress to suggest folds. This approach resulted in a dynamic rendering of the blue fabric, adding a sense of movement that contrasts nicely with the woman’s more schematically done collar, bonnet and face.

Bernard’s use of pen and ink was prolific, as is evident in the extensive collection of his ink drawings that he compiled in the album L’enfance d’un peintre. Created later in his life, it contains hundreds of sketches from the period 1882–89 . His handling of the medium was free and direct, resembling the spontaneous nature of drawing with chalk or charcoal. He would sketch directly onto the paper with pen, bypassing the use of any preliminary underdrawing in pencil. In contrast, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) would often rely on an initial pencil underdrawing before applying ink lines with a reed pen.

Bernard’s approach to drawing with pen and ink was characterized by a sketchy and often rhythmic style, resulting in a multitude of lines that lent his work a certain spontaneity. This can be observed in Breton Woman with Child, with its repetitively applied lines, such as on the woman’s collar and bonnet and the child’s sun hat. The contours are most boldly emphasized, showcasing Bernard’s pursuit of a clear and graphic style above all.

A trimmed sheet

The drawing was executed on a sheet of wove paper, which was later trimmed on all sides to its current dimensions of 22.5 × 12.4 cm. None of the edges are straight, and it is evident that the trimming interrupted the lines on the left, right and bottom edges of the sheet. This is most clearly seen in the child’s hat, which is now partially cut off. Bernard was fascinated by the visual effect of cropping, as is also evident in Boy Sitting in the Grass. His approach was most likely influenced by Japanese printmaking, although there is no direct evidence of Bernard actively engaging with this source of inspiration at this early stage of his career. However, it was very popular among the avant-garde circles to which Bernard belonged, and he may have been introduced to it by his friends Louis Anquetin (1861–1932) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901).

It is quite possible that Bernard used a sheet from one of the above mentioned sketchbooks for this drawing. The sketchbooks were composed of wove paper and typically measured approximately 31 × 20 cm. After the sheet was trimmed, the artist pasted it onto another sheet of wove paper, which, because of its larger size (32.2 × 22.3 cm), cannot have come from any of the sketchbooks. To enhance the drawing, Bernard added an additional framing line in black chalk, following the cutting edges of the drawing. This gave it the appearance of being in a passe-partout, lending it cachet. It is not known when Bernard made these adjustments to the sheet, but he probably kept his sketchbooks intact during his trip and only tore out this sheet after his return to his home town of Asnières.

Given to Van Gogh

Until now, it has been assumed that Bernard sent this drawing from Brittany to Van Gogh in Arles as part of a shipment of ten drawings in late July 1888. This assumption is based on a reconstruction of the ten drawings conducted by Mark Roskill in 1970. This group further consisted of Breton scenes, brothel scenes and sketches of figures in an Arcadian landscape; all of these drawings are in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. Roskill described them as stylistically consistent and exclusively originating in 1888. This holds true for all the drawings except Breton Woman with Child, which stands apart in displaying a less free and more graphic style and, crucially, was not made in 1888. It is unlikely that Bernard would have included this work, which differs in style and date, in his dispatch to Van Gogh in 1888 alongside nine more recent drawings. Instead, it is more plausible that Bernard gave Breton Woman with Child to his friend during one of their frequent meetings in Paris between late 1886 and 19 February 1888, when Van Gogh headed to Arles.

The question then arises as to which drawing was the tenth in the July 1888 shipment. It is much more likely that it was the Adoration of the Shepherds. Roskill overlooked this work, even though it was produced in 1888 and must also have been given to Van Gogh by Bernard.

Joost van der Hoeven
November 2023


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Emile Bernard, Breton Woman with Child, 1886’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2023.

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