Paul Gauguin’s Breton girl spinning now on show

29 May 2008

As of today Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) mural Breton girl spinning (1889) is on display at the Van Gogh Museum following a period of research and restoration. The work – bought in 2006 – is a valuable addition to the collection of Van Gogh’s contemporaries and greatly strengthens the museum’s collection of ‘the Pont-Aven school’.

Breton girl spinning
The work was originally painted on a wall in the dining room of the inn La Buvette de la Plage, in Le Pouldu in Brittany where Gauguin stayed. Here Gauguin, together with his pupil Meijer de Haan, decorated the walls of the dining room. The mural shows a Breton girl in traditional costume standing in front of a slender tree on the headland. The cow depicted in the distant background suggests the girl is a cowherdess; in the meantime she spins wool by hand. An angel with sword hovers above. Gauguin has intentionally left the meaning vague. She might be the cowherdess Joan of Arc, but the painting might also allude to Eve after the Fall. The scene is painted in oil on plaster. For Gauguin this was not a familiar technique, but it is characteristic of his desire to experiment with materials. In a letter to Vincent van Gogh, he wrote that the experiment had been very instructive and that he was pleased with the result. Breton girl spinning was discovered in 1924 under several layers of wallpaper, along with two other murals, (one of which was by Meijer de Haan).
Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Breton girl spinning, 1889, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Paul Gauguin and ‘the Pont-Aven school’
During the period 1886-1890 Paul Gauguin made many visits to Brittany, staying at Pont-Aven and the nearby coastal village of Le Pouldu. Like many artists, he was attracted by the rustic character of the area and the simple traditional life of the local people. He was also fascinated by the undisputed role that religious belief and superstition played within the community. It was here that Gauguin became the leading figure within a group of young artists now known as ‘the Pont-Aven school’. In a reaction to Impressionism, which was predicated on an observation of reality, the Pont-Aven artists strove for a new art in which imagination and mystery were predominant. The artists, including Emile Bernard, Paul Sérusier and Meijer de Haan, used large planes of colour and exaggerated contours. This gave their work a decorative character, as also clearly demonstrated in Breton girl spinning.

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