Important Art by Émile Henri Bernard
Bernard was 20 years old when he produced this portrait of his sister, Madeleine, who was 17 at the time. The portrait is life-size and depicts the chronically ill young woman lying in the Bois d'Amour, a small wooded area on the edge of Pont-Aven in Brittany.
Reclining and looking upward in her reverie, the body of Madeleine claims the entire width of the canvas, thereby visually splitting the canvas into two distinct parts: her body and the pleasant landscape. Bernard made multiple preparatory drawings on site for the painting, but then produced it in the studio. Cutting through the landscape is the river Aven, from which the village gets its name. The painting was made at the time Bernard was traveling on foot through Brittany and when he met Gauguin who had apparently fallen in love with the ailing younger sister of his new artist friend.
The picture marks the moment of Bernard's break with Impressionism once he met Gauguin and began absorbing the latter's ideas concerning Synthetist Symbolism, which was a stark, formal simplification of the elaborate Symbolism of artists like Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes. With Synthetism (from the French word "synthetiser" meaning "to synthesize"), objects are broken down into solid areas of color and mass while excessive details and any attempts at conveying perspective, depth, or volume are eliminated.
The inventors of Synthetism, Gauguin, Bernard, and Louis Anquetin, wanted to emphasize the difference between their work and Impressionism. Whereas Impressionists strived to describe objects in terms of light effects, generally eschewed line, and never relinquished the impulse to create illusionistic depth and volume in their works, the Synthetists emphasized flatness and outlining. They stated that their primary aim was to synthesize the feelings of the artist about a given subject, the supposed "purity" of color, line, and form, and the exterior appearance of forms in the natural world. If Impressionism was about capturing a moment in time as objectively as possible, Synthetism emphasized subjectivity - the emotional impetus of the artist that lay beneath the production of a painting.
Non-western art, especially that of Japan and the Near East, heavily influenced avant garde artists of the period, including Bernard. Some of the Impressionists including Degas, Monet, and Manet, had begun collecting Japanese ukiyo-e prints and Bernard's close friend, Van Gogh, had begun doing so and had exhibited a number of the prints he had acquired in 1887.
The features of the Japanese woodblock prints that most captivated these artists were the bold outlines, flat areas of uniform color, uniform lighting, unusual perspectives (or no perspective), the often radical cropping, and an emphasis on patterns. Additionally, they tended to represent scenes from everyday life, which held enormous appeal for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Bernard and his friends and colleagues, Van Gogh and Gauguin, were also impressed by the ethos of the artists who produced the distinctive woodblock prints. Van Gogh had learned that Japanese printmakers frequently exchanged their work with each other and suggested that the trio do the same.
In this self-portrait, not only does Bernard depict himself but he also includes a portrait he was making of Gauguin. The formal similarities with Japanese woodblock prints are evident: the bold outlining, the large areas of mostly solid color, the flatness, and the unusual cropping. Blue dominates the painting, which suggests a kind of melancholy in keeping with the sober expression on Bernard's face.
As a kind of double portrait, the image of Gauguin looks down into the studio of Bernard as though the older artist is functioning as a sort of mentor, lips slightly pursed in what reads as a look of disapproval. While Bernard is credited with having influenced Gauguin heavily, the latter never openly credited him and the two collaborators often had trouble seeing eye to eye.
Also of note is there is a very similar famous self-portrait by Gauguin, that has Bernard in the frame on the wall, a further sign of the comradery between the two artists.
Captivated by the supposed primitivism of the country folk in Brittany in northwestern France, Bernard, like Gauguin, attempted to extol the virtues of a simpler life less touched by modernity in his depictions of Breton peasants.
In this painting, two Breton women wearing the traditional bonnets and garments of the region are busy picking apples in an orchard on a hill. One woman reaches up to pluck the apples from the branches while another stoops to gather the ones that have already fallen to the ground.
Bernard's Cloissonist style is apparent here: the bold outlining and colorful, simplified forms that describe the figures and objects are the two most distinctive traits of the style he developed and which influenced Gauguin among others so profoundly. The style, Cloisonnism, gets its name from the ancient metalwork technique that separates colored glass elements in compartments ("cloisons") with wires.
The picture seems to be comprised of flat layers stacked one on top of the next. While the flat brown tree seems to describe the foreground and the steeple establishes a distant background, no other attempts at creating depth or volume are evident. The bodies of the women are distorted and simplified as are the unnatural, red leaves of the apple tree, which resemble large, bright flowers like poppies.
The bright but simplified palette was a major characteristic of his and Gauguin's Brittany paintings, with colors meant to evoke a kind of modest and joyful spirituality.