One of the most fruitful periods in Burke’s creative life was spent in Brittany, c. 1875-1877. He was one of the first Irish artists, along with Thomas Hovendon and Aloysius O’Kelly, in the painters’ colony at Pont-Aven.2 Basing himself in the hamlet of Tremalo, Burke represented women praying and beggars outside the church there, a feast day and a farmyard, in careful Realist style, with strong emphasis on light and shade. His recently rediscovered Breton Reapers, featuring two Breton girls, evokes a sense of beauty and piety.3
The present painting has a gentle, relaxed mood, with a palette of glowing richness, evoking the heat of a sunny day. Burke features four young Breton women taking the ease in the shade of trees in a sunny orchard. The setting is probably near Pont-Aven on the hillside above the river Aven. The figures are placed left of centre, and are seen mainly in shadow. They are close to one another, but each holds a different posture, and there is a variety in their costumes. The woman on the left stands upright, and reaches up to pick an apple. She wears a plain, navy blue dress, brown apron, white stockings and clogs. Unusually for a Breton woman she is bare-headed, although she wears a small head band. To her right a small girl is seated on a branch in a relaxed, winsome pose. One hand leans against a branch, the other holding an apple. Her figure is in shadow, but sunshine delicately lights up the top of her bonnet and the side of her jerkin.
She looks out at the viewer, as does the woman reclining on the ground below her, engaging our interest. The latter’s face and hands are expressively painted, and she is clad in a more elaborate headdress and collar, with red, white and gold trimmings around her navy dress. The fourth girl reclines near her, her figure viewed from behind. She wears a bonnet with red top and belt, white collar and blue dress lit up by sunlight, and shoes rather than clogs. The presence of the young women, away from their work in the fields or as chamber maids, relaxing together, but lost in their own thoughts, creates a quietly enigmatic mood.
Burke composes the picture in a skilful way, the wiry tree and branches framing the figures, the landscape sloping down to the bend of the river. He makes use of the rich colours: navies and lighter blues in the dresses, whites, silvery blue and green leaves, touches of blue and pink in the landscape, siennas and browns, skilfully balancing colours together in different parts of the picture. For example, the blue of the reclining girl’s dress is echoed by the blue of the estuary, the white in her headdress by that in the distant sailing boat.
1 See Mary Stratton Ryan, ‘The Burke Family of Waterslane House', in Journal of Tuam Society, vol. vi, 2009, p.46-54: Brendan Rooney, ‘Burke, Augustus Nicholas’, in (Irish) Painting 1600-1900, ed. N. Figgis, RIA/Yale, 2014, p. 194-195.
2 J. Campbell, Peintres Irelandais en Bretagne, Musée de Pont-Aven, 1999.
3 Sold Sheppards, Durrow, 4 December 2014, lot 1976.
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