After his first trip to the South Pacific, Gauguin returned briefly to Paris before relocating to Pont-Aven, Brittany, in January 1888 for a nine-month stay. He was attracted to Brittany by the low cost of living and the distinctive Breton culture with its Celtic language and traditional Breton dress. That summer, Gauguin and his colleague Émile Bernard (1868-1941), among others, continued to develop the cloisonnist style, characterized by bright, flat colors and heavy outlines analogous to cloisonné enamel. During this sojourn, Gauguin began to produce some of his most ambitious and daring canvases to date. He returned the following year for his third and final visit to Brittany, staying in the nearby town of Le Pouldu.
The present energetically worked pastel is preparatory for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, executed during the summer of 1888 and first shown in Paris that fall, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gauguin was at work on the painting in mid-June when he wrote to Theo van Gogh describing it. The painting depicts three young girls in local costume holding hands as they dance in a field above Pont-Aven. The figures on this sheet are drawn on the same scale as in the final picture. This sheet was followed by a second pastel featuring the upper half of the three girls, which Gauguin sent to Theo van Gogh that fall (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Peter Zegers has suggested that the Amsterdam pastel was reworked by Gauguin after he completed the painting. In his letter to Émile Schuffenecker of 14 August 1888, Gauguin included a sketch of the heads of the two girls that appear to the right in this pastel; judging from the cap on the figure at right, however, the sketch is after the painting, not the pastel. There is a possibility that the present sheet is one of two drawings--the other being the Amsterdam pastel--that Gauguin sent Theo in November 1888 but was intercepted by Émile Bernard's mother.
Gauguin repeated part of the present composition in another work. The Joys of Brittany, a plate from the artist's 1889 zincograph series, the Volpini suite, depicts the same two girls at the right. The figures are in reverse--breaking the circle in which they move--and set among haystacks. As Joseph Baillio noted, the close correspondence of the hat of the girl at far right in the print to that of the present pastel suggests that Gauguin returned to this sheet, rather than to the painting, for the composition. The same two figures from the print reappear in pastel and gouache on the verso of the Ondine (III) fan, also executed in 1889.
Thaw, Eugene Victor, former owner.
Thaw, Clare, former owner.
Wildenstein, Daniel, Gauguin, Paul, Crussard, Sylvie, Heudron, Martine, and Wildenstein Institute. Gauguin, Premier Itinéraire D'un Sauvage : Catalogue De L'oeuvre Peint (1873-1888) / Daniel Wildenstein ; Texte Et Recherches, Sylvie Crussard ; Documentation Et Chronologie, Martine Heudron. Milano : Paris: Skira ; Wildenstein Institute, 2001, under no. 296.
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY, "Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection", 2017. Exh. cat., no. 143, repr.
The Thaw collection of master drawings : acquisitions since 2002. New York : Morgan Library & Museum, 2009, no. 46, repr.