In late September 1888, Emile Bernard (1868–1941) dispatched a seemingly random selection of drawings to Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) from Pont-Aven. It was the fifth time that year that Bernard had sent one or more drawings to Arles. This batch included two leisure scenes on the banks of the Seine at Asnières, a meadow with figures and animals at Pont-Aven, and a sheet with brothel scenes on both sides. Van Gogh thanked Bernard for the drawings and paid him a compliment by acknowledging that each drawing contained ‘an idea’. Yet he also informed Bernard that he found the drawings had been ‘done in a bit too much of a rush’, and to Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) he wrote that he did not ‘like these drawings as much as the previous ones’. Van Gogh only adopted a critical and straightforward tone in his correspondence with Bernard. He regarded him as a kind of younger brother in need of advice and guidance and believed himself capable of offering that in view of his broader life experience and knowledge. Unfortunately, Bernard’s letters to Van Gogh have not survived, and therefore the exact reason for Bernard’s selection of these drawings remains unknown. It is worth noting that during the summer of 1888, Bernard worked extensively with watercolour, including many plein-air studies of the landscape. Interestingly, his shipments to Van Gogh only included drawings with figures, be it brothel drawings, depictions of rural life or religious scenes.
Courbet and Seurat
The two scenes on the banks of the Seine can be interpreted within the context of the numerous brothel drawings Van Gogh had previously received from Bernard. As a counterpart to the many depictions of nocturnal prostitution on the fringes of society, these two sketches might represent a contrast – a depiction of more sophisticated courtesans who catered to their clients during the day. In this light, Gustave Courbet’s (1819–1877) famous painting Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (Summer) , for example, could have served as inspiration for Bernard’s drawings. In Idyll in Asnières (Idylle à Asnières), we observe a fashionably dressed woman enjoying a picnic with her companion. Meanwhile, in the foreground of Figures by the Riverside we encounter a man and a woman whose attire more properly belongs in a café-concert or brothel setting and who may also be involved in a sex worker and client relationship.
However, a more plausible interpretation is that the two leisure scenes were adapted from A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 by Georges Seurat (1859–1891) . Bernard likely had the opportunity to see the monumental neo-impressionist work at the second exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, which took place from 21 August to 21 September 1886. The park-like setting along the bank of the Seine, with figures randomly scattered throughout the composition, is reminiscent of Seurat. The most notable stylistic similarity is the simplified and archaic appearance of the figures. As in Seurat’s work, Bernard’s figures have a static quality, with their forms reduced to the essence. The woman in the yellow dress, in particular, bears a striking resemblance to the figure in Seurat’s large painting, although the other figures also exhibit similarities. While Bernard had been sketching leisure activities along the Seine near Asnières for years, there is little doubt that in this case he was inspired by the neo-impressionist.
Despite Bernard’s evident admiration for Seurat’s composition and figure stylization, he held a critical stance towards Seurat’s pointillist painting technique. Bernard himself experimented with this technique for a brief period, but ultimately rejected it in early 1887. Later that same year, he even refused to exhibit alongside the neo-impressionist Paul Signac (1863–1935). Even so, Bernard remained captivated by Seurat’s work, albeit in a more selective way. While he was averse to the pointillist technique, Bernard still found value in Seurat’s formal language. Consequently, Bernard drew his Seurat-inspired figures not as constellations of dots but as uniform fields of colour, accentuated with bold black contours.
Sheets torn from a sketchbook
When in 1888 Bernard drew his two leisure scenes cannot be determined with certainty. It is possible that he drew them on the spot in Asnières before his departure for Brittany in April. However, it is more likely that he made them during his stay in Brittany. An important clue supporting this is that Bernard executed these drawings on the same sheets of paper as the Au bordel series, which he produced towards the end of the summer. He tore them out of a sketchbook with sheets of wove paper measuring approximately 40.5 × 27.5 cm. The sheet with the drawing Pasture with Figures and Animals, which Bernard sent to Van Gogh along with the two leisure scenes, comes from this sketchbook as well.
The watercolour Bernard applied to Figures by the Riverside was less diluted than that in the other two drawings. This distinction is clear to see when comparing the colour intensity of the works. This difference has become more pronounced over time owing to the discolouration process, as diluted watercolour contains fewer pigments and tends to fade more rapidly. For example, the grass in Idyll in Asnières (Idylle à Asnières) has lost much of its original colour, and the hill in the right background of Pasture with Figures and Animals initially had a red hue. It is evident that Bernard handled this drawing before the watercolour had completely dried, as indicated by the many fingerprints along the left side of the sheet. Additionally, his fingerprints are visible at the lower left in Figures by the Riverside: a personal imprint, a fine trace of the artist.
Bernard took up Figures by the Riverside again when he worked on his important painting The Pardon . In fact, he incorporated one of the two fashionably dressed women sitting in the grass in the drawing into the painting. The decision to use a drawing that may not have directly served as a preliminary study for the work in question could have been influenced by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who was in Pont-Aven with Bernard at the time. Indeed, Gauguin often scrolled back through his sketchbooks while painting, seeking figures that he could use in his compositions. However, in contrast to Gauguin’s use of figures, Bernard’s approach was more radical. By placing the Parisian women among traditionally dressed Breton people in The Pardon, Bernard removed them entirely from their original context. This unexpected confrontation served to highlight the stark contrast between ‘modern’ Paris and ‘primitive’ Pont-Aven. At the same time, Bernard drew attention to the total freedom that his approach to this painting afforded him. The green plane in which the figures are situated is essentially abstract, devoid of any specific guidelines or rules. As a result, the combination of figures in this space is essentially arbitrary, offering the artist the liberty of arranging and filling it as he saw fit. Gauguin, in turn, was inspired by this radical combination of figures, evident in his The Wine Harvest: Human Misery (1888, Ordrupgaard), painted in Arles, in which he integrated two Breton women in a scene he had observed there.
Once he had completed the figures in The Pardon, Bernard no longer needed the drawing and sent it to Van Gogh. Shortly thereafter, Van Gogh had the opportunity to see the final painting when Gauguin brought it with him to Arles to work with Van Gogh. Van Gogh was extremely enthusiastic about The Pardon and made a watercolour copy of it . It is doubtful that he would have recognized the figures from the drawing in Bernard’s painting; after all, he had sent the drawing on to Theo in Paris fairly soon after receiving it, which was before Gauguin arrived with The Pardon. But a year later, Van Gogh described Bernard’s painting as ‘a Sunday afternoon in Brittany’, no doubt alluding to Seurat’s masterpiece. In a letter addressed to his sister Willemien van Gogh (1862–1941), Van Gogh provided an even more detailed description of the work: ‘Breton peasant women, children, peasants, dogs strolling in a very green meadow, the costumes are black and red, and big white caps. But in this crowd there are also two ladies, one in red, the other in bottle green, who make it into a really modern thing.’ Without mentioning the drawing further, Van Gogh recognized Bernard’s radical choice to bring together types from different backgrounds in a composition.
The sketch Pasture with Figures and Animals also contributed to The Pardon. Even more than Figures by the Riverside, this sketch was an exploratory study for the painting. We recognize the Breton woman at the lower right of the composition, but the man opposite her does not occur in the painting. However, his clothing – characterized by a high white collar and a flat black hat, which is the traditional costume worn to a pardon (a Breton ritual in which penitents process barefoot or on their knees around the church to earn absolution for their sins), does feature in the painting, donned by the men at the upper right. Bernard did not incorporate anything else from the drawing in the painting. It was mainly an exploration of the prominent figures at the lower right of the composition. The sharp cropping ensures that the figures are only seen from the shoulders.
It is possible that Bernard chose Figures by the Riverside and Pasture with Figures and Animals to provide Van Gogh with an impression of his work in Pont-Aven. This selection of drawings may therefore not have been as random as it may initially appear. Van Gogh had previously requested drawings from Bernard that would give him an idea of the paintings he was producing. Essentially, Bernard was responding to Van Gogh’s request with these two drawings.
Joost van der Hoeven