Painted at the innovative height of the Pont-Aven School in 1889, Bretonnes ramassant des pommes is undoubtedly one of the most iconic works in the oeuvre of Émile Bernard. The convergence of ravishing colors, flattened perspective and pastoral subject matter embodies the new Post-Impressionist vocabulary that Bernard and other artists of the Pont-Aven colony sought to create, underscoring a striking contrast from the modern bustle of a rapidly industrializing Paris.
Born in 1868 in the northern French town of Lille, Émile Bernard was the son of a textile merchant. During his childhood, Bernard’s family moved frequently and he was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother, the owner of a laundry shop, who would become one of the most fervent supporters of her grandson’s artistic career. Precociously intelligent and gifted in the arts, Bernard enrolled in the Collège Saint-Barbe upon his family’s relocation to Paris in 1878. Finding formal academic instruction too constraining for his creative energies, Bernard expressed his wish to become a painter at age 16, much to the chagrin of his parents. Nevertheless, in 1884, Bernard joined the workshop of Fernand Cormon, a history painter and thus a darling of the Salon. During his time in Cormon’s studio, Bernard befriended other artists also under Cormon’s tutelage, including Louis Anquetin, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with whom he would go on to have productive working relationships (see fig. 1).
Finding Paris and its plethora of Bohemian artists distasteful, Bernard set off on a voyage à pied along the coast of Brittany in 1886. As far back as the 1860s, this remote region of northwestern France had held an almost mystical fascination for avant-garde artists. Its raw and dramatic coastline a source of endless inspiration for Impressionists like Monet and the distinctively religious and almost medieval culture of its people a draw for Post-Impressionists who sought a reprieve from the French capital. When he arrived in Pont-Aven for the first time in the summer of 1886, he was introduced to Paul Gauguin, a fateful meeting that led to a tumultuous partnership that would impact the trajectory of modern art.
In the summer of 1888, Bernard and Gauguin were reunited in Pont-Aven and worked side-by-side to develop pictorial Symbolism, a bold new artistic style defined by emphatic contours, unorthodox cropping and exaggerated planes of color, all with the goal of achieving, in Bernard’s own formulation, “transcendental idealism” that pushes art beyond naturalistic depictions of reality. Most of Bernard and Gauguin’s canvases from this critical year feature Breton women in their traditional garb, often engaged in spiritual or agrarian activities set against an abstracted background with flattened perspective (see fig. 2). This departure from one-point perspective can be attributed to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints, which flooded the French market following the opening of Japanese trade with the West in 1854. Bernard, like many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, adopted modes of visual representation and, at times, appropriated pictorial elements from these prints. Traces of Hiroshige, the most famous of the Japanese ukiyo-e artists, can be seen in the present work (see fig. 3).
Like other canvases Bernard painted at the apex of his Symbolist period, Bretonnes ramassant des pommes is a pure feast of audacious color (see fig. 4). The field in which the women are working has been abstracted and then heightened with a brilliant lime-green hue while their traditional dresses are shaded with saturated navy blue and scarlet pigments. The bounty of orange-hued apples, which Bernard has rendered with bold outlines, is the unlikely source of the painting’s drama, piled high in the baskets and scattered on the ground as though they are overflowing out of the canvas. The two harvesters, disproportionately large in relation to the rest of the composition, are caught in the midst of an interaction, the frozen ambiguity of their expressions projecting a feeling of timeless tension.
Tiphereth, the legendary art critic of Le Coeur, wrote in 1895: “Today, among the privileged ranks of the ‘Masters,’ the Émile Bernards the Gauguins and the Filigers take their place. Bernard, blessed above all else with a rare spirit of invention, capable of the boldest strokes of originality, had the brilliant idea, after immersing himself in the very Soul of the Celtic land, of painting Brittany in all its grand decorative aspects, and uniting in a single mystical harmony both figures and landscapes” (quoted in L’Exposition de M. Armand Séguin (exhibition catalogue), Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville, Paris, 1895, n.p.).