Pont-Aven, on the Atlantic coast of France near Concarneau (where our ship was anchored) in Brittany, is known mostly because of a group of artists who gathered there in the late 1800s around Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard. A local writer states: “to mention Pont-Aven is to state the inseparable bond between Brittany and painting; the first, rich in realities and myths, the second, fascinating in presence and dream.”
In the middle of the 19th century Brittany became fashionable. American painters set up here in the 1860s, soon to be followed by hundreds of their peers of all nationalities. They found a welcome at the Hotel des Voyageurs. At Marie Jeanne Gloanec’s inn, a meeting between Paul Gaugin and Émile Bernard set off an artistic revolution that made Pont-Aven world-famous. Over the next ten years the town became a rendezvous point and outdoor studio for hundreds of painters, becoming known as the “city of painters”.
The River Aven courses down from the Montagnes Noires into and through the town of Pont-Aven. In the 19th century numerous flour mills were built along the river to take advantage of the fast flowing waters to turn their wheels.
The port, which fills up with the rising tide, is today used primarily by pleasure craft. Going back to the 18th century, the port was an important part of the local economy.
From the processing of grain along the River Aven, formerly the main economic activity in Pont-Aven, the industry has moved progressively to the making of fine quality products: the famous galettes (butter biscuits), made by two local biscuit manufacturers.
From the city center we hiked uphill and through part of the Bois d’Amour (the woods (forest) of love) which was a favorite of many of the visiting painters. It was here that Gauguin famously told a fellow painter that if he wanted to paint the woods blue, because that is what he saw/felt (rather than the natural green color), then paint the woods blue — advice that shook up the world of painting. Outside the woods we came to another favorite destination of the 19th century painters, the Chapel of Tremalo.
The chapel (not consecrated as a “church”) was donated to the local farmers by a wealthy family of Pont-Aven. The design is 16th century Gothic with a warm interior. The chapel has become famous as it contains a 17th century wood crucifix (in the upper left corner of the photograph, above), rendered famous in Paul Gauguin’s work “The Yellow Christ”. The theme had become somewhat common-place through overuse, but Gauguin’s genius raised it to a symbolic level: by taking it out of its usual context and placing it amongst a group of women at prayer in a field, and by his use of form, what is revealed is an expression of the idea of prayer itself and the feeling of a simple and rustic faith.