Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Breton Watercolours

Emile Bernard

Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) letter of 15 July 1888 to Emile Bernard (1868–1941) contained an urgent request to send sketches of the paintings he had made in Brittany. Van Gogh had just sent Bernard six drawings of his recent paintings, and hoped to receive in return an impression of what his friend was working on. His request was granted only in part. On 29 July, Van Gogh received ten drawings that Bernard had sent from Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, where he was staying at the time. Among these ten sheets were four drawings that display Breton settings. These four drawings were unrelated to any of Bernard’s painted work, however, so Van Gogh still did not know what Bernard was painting in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer. This was also the case with the rest of the batch. Five of the other sheets depicted brothel scenes, as did many of the drawings that Bernard had sent Van Gogh earlier that year. Prostitution was, after all, a subject that Bernard was fond of discussing with Van Gogh. The tenth drawing of the shipment depicted a biblical theme.

Unrelated to painted work

In addition to being unrelated to specific paintings, the four Breton watercolours were also not specifically connected with his present surroundings, since they all referred to Pont-Aven and not to Saint-Briac. Avenue in Brittany with Figures bears the inscription ‘Pont-Aven’, and in all four drawings the women wear their headdresses (coiffes) in the manner traditional there, with two large loops behind the head, as seen in many works painted in Pont-Aven by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Bernard and others. Bernard made the drawings from memory, having spent long periods in Pont-Aven in 1886 and 1887. Several weeks after sending them to Van Gogh, Bernard once again made his way to the artists’ village.

One reason Bernard hesitated to send Van Gogh drawings after his paintings might be his own dissatisfaction with his painted work. His aim in going to Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, where he arrived on 25 April 1888, was to work on an ambitious group composition depicting a village procession. To this end, he was contemplating an extensive series of studies from life. The failure of this project to materialize eventually sent Bernard into a brief artistic crisis. He found a way out of it by abandoning his intention to paint from life and turning instead to religious subjects and to painting from memory and the imagination. This shift in focus led him to make large-scale biblical decorations on the walls of his studio, for example, and these four Breton drawings from memory.

Breton pastoral

Admittedly, Bernard had drawn brothel scenes from memory earlier that year, but apparently he had not yet tried this approach with his Breton work. The drawings he sent to Van Gogh form an idealistic tetraptych of the reputedly ‘primitive’ existence of women in Pont-Aven; indeed, there are no men in these depictions. The drawings comply with the stereotypical, primitivist image of a society untouched by modernity, a life that urban artists like Bernard expected of this region of Brittany. This makes these sheets telling counterparts of the more vulgar and facetious brothel drawings that Bernard had sent to Van Gogh. He thus complemented his fascination for the outgrowths of modernity with pastoral fantasies of unspoiled rural life: a juxtaposition – typical of the nineteenth century – of the secular, sinful city and the religious, chaste countryside.

The drawings depict fruit-pickers, an avenue flanked by plane trees with a strolling couple and other figures, a woman sitting in a field with a view of Pont-Aven, and a woman seated on a bench in the corner of a chapel. In essence, these drawings are harbingers of the important paintings Bernard would make in Pont-Aven, including The Pardon and The Harvest . There Bernard also continued to make watercolours, dozens of which are in the same style as the four sheets he sent to Van Gogh. So even though these drawings were not related to any paintings, they did give some indication of the direction Bernard’s work was taking.

Emile Bernard, The Pardon, 1888, oil on canvas, 90.7 × 110 cm,Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Emile Bernard, The Pardon, 1888, oil on canvas, 70.3 × 92 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Style and technique

As in the abovementioned paintings, Bernard built up the compositions of his drawings from flat areas of colour and clearly accentuated lines, a style that is variously called cloisonnism or synthetism. He was inspired in this endeavour not only by Japanese prints but also by stained-glass windows and the popular Épinal prints (images d’Épinal). Bernard laid in the general form of these compositions with thin lines of black ink, with the exception of Corner of a Chapel (Coin de chapelle), for which he used purple ink. He then coloured in the areas with watercolour. Bernard needed only a small range of colours, because he could achieve nuances of tone by working in layers and applying hatching. Finally, he accentuated the contours with a reed pen, which made it possible to vary the thickness of the lines by adjusting the sharpness of the tip. The lines of these drawings therefore vary greatly in thickness. In some passages Bernard skipped the first step: instead of laying in the lines with pen and ink, he drew the composition directly in watercolour, afterwards framing his areas of colour with black ink – a method that is discernible in the background of Breton Woman with a Parasol, for example. This procedure is quite error-prone, however: here the result testifies to Bernard’s great mastery of the medium. The drawings are on sheets of wove paper that came from a sketchbook (measuring around 31 × 20 cm) of the kind Bernard had been using since 1886. Each sheet clearly displays a long edge that was obviously torn from a sketchbook. Corner of a Chapel and Avenue in Brittany with Figures have drawing-pin holes in the corners, many of which are ripped.

Van Gogh’s reaction to the drawings

Van Gogh is probably not the one who hung these sheets up with drawing pins, because almost immediately after receiving them, he sent the drawings on to his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) in Paris. He also wrote to Bernard by return post: ‘A thousand thanks for sending your drawings; I very much like the avenue of plane trees beside the sea, with two women chatting in the foreground and the promenaders. Also the woman under the apple tree, the woman with the parasol.’ Yet several months later he again asked Bernard for depictions of his surroundings, and this time wanted something more substantial. He had received enough rapidly executed sketches. To be sure, in terms of finish, Bernard’s watercolours were nowhere near as elaborate as the detailed pen drawings that Van Gogh had sent him. Nor did Bernard’s Breton drawings prompt long discussions of any substance in their correspondence, as his brothel scenes did.

It is striking that Van Gogh’s reaction to Bernard’s Breton drawings did not include any mention of Corner of a Chapel. As the only work of the four with religious connotations, it places the profession of faith at the heart of Bernard’s image of the ‘pure’ life in Pont-Aven. Although the drawing has the allure of an everyday scene, the inclusion of a medieval crucifix seems to suggest that the ‘primitive’ religious culture of the Middle Ages was still very much alive in Brittany. Moreover, the drawing evokes associations with a poem of the same title that Bernard had sent to Van Gogh several months earlier. Van Gogh was certainly not uncritical when it came to the religious turn Bernard had taken in his choice of subject matter. It may well explain why he made no mention of the drawing.

Les Bretonneries

The four Breton drawings that Bernard sent to Van Gogh in the summer of 1888 are difficult to see separately from Les Bretonneries, a series of prints he made later, in the first months of 1889 . At this time he was in Paris again, and at Theo van Gogh’s urging, he and Gauguin each made a series of zincographs, with a view to raising the visibility of their art among a wider public. A possible impetus was the exhibition Les Peintres-Graveurs, which ran from 23 January to 14 February 1889 at the Durand-Ruel gallery. Whereas Gauguin chose to offer an overview of his oeuvre by presenting interpretations of a number of paintings, Bernard fell back to some extent on what he had made the previous summer: a homogeneous, idealized series of scenes of daily life in rural Brittany. Just as the four drawings do, these eight prints show Breton women in traditional dress, working the land or doing household chores . Bernard’s prints are more highly stylized than the drawings and also exceptionally decorative: the figures are not simply traditionally attired women but rather patterns that combine to form an abstract ensemble. In this way, Bernard reduced the Breton women and their clothing to a generic type and their characteristic caps to a kind of arabesque. Like Gauguin, Bernard exhibited his prints at the Volpini Exhibition, which opened on 10 June 1889.

Joost van der Hoeven
March 2023


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Emile Bernard, Breton Watercolours, 1888’, 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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