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April 2004

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (1888)

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158(4):306. doi:10.1001/archpedi.158.4.306

The French province of Brittany juts westward into the Atlantic Ocean on a granite peninsula, dotted with megaliths from the age of Stonehenge. Many Bretons are descendants of Celtic settlers who arrived centuries ago by sea after crossing the English Channel from Britain and Ireland. The distinctive Breton language, customs, and style of Christianity live on and give the people of this region a reputation of being the least French of the French.

Paul Gauguin was captivated by this exotic corner of his own homeland. He wrote to a friend, "I like Brittany. Here I find a savage, primitive quality. When my wooden shoes echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull, muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting."1(p22) The 3 girls in Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven were probably reenacting a dance from a fest-noz, a night of feasting and dancing to celebrate a successful harvest. They wore traditional Breton peasant attire: wooden shoes, a dark dress, an apron, and a white shoulderpiece and cap (coiffe). The design of the coiffe varied from town to town, so an informed observer could tell that 1 of these dancers was from Pont-Aven just from her bonnet.

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