Pont-Aven was a small village on the river Aven in Brittany which became significant in the history of Post Impressionism for the circle of artists who worked there with Paul Gauguin in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The village has subsequently leant its name to the movement or School that embraces this group of artists and which is more technically known as Cloissonism or Synthetism.
The fluctuating array of artists that formed the Pont-Aven School in these years included French artists Paul Serusier; Maxim Maufra, Gustave Loiseau and Henry Moret; the Danish artist Mogens Ballin the Dutch artist Jan Verkade and the Irish artist Roderic O’Conor.
The village of Pont-Aven itself was extremely attractive to these artists largely because it had retained visible manifestations (in costumes, dialect, festivals, beliefs) of its fascinating pagan and medieval cultural heritage and because it seemed so far removed from urban and industrial centres. It therefore seemed to accord with their interests in the spiritual and the ‘primitive’.
Cloissonism as a technique of painting was first properly seen in the works of Anquetin Louis and Emile Bernard at the exhibition organised by Vincent van Gogh in November 1887 at the Grand Restaurant-Bouillon, Paris. The name derives from the French verb to partition, referring to the bold outlines of simplified forms enclosing bright flat areas of colour that was the hall mark of this mode of painting. There was also a symbolic use of colour and the orchestration of these areas in an harmonious and rhythmic way across the canvas.
After Gauguin’s first visit to Pont-Aven in 1886, he returned for an extended stay from 1888 to 1891 (and also returned in 1894). Bernard joined him in the late summer of 1888, bringing with him the new Cloissonist technique, and an intense period of creativity was sparked between the two artists. They fully explored and developed the Cloissonism and the movement born is often also referred to as Synthetism.
This label relates to the ambition to synthesise a visual recording of the artists’ chosen subjects from nature together with their emotional and intuitive responses to them. It therefore explored the power of painting to express emotion and provide a means to access and impart higher truths. The term Synthetist itself was first used on the occasion of the seminal exhibition that Gauguin organised with Claude-Emile Schuffenecker at the Café Volpini in 1889: L’Exposition de peintures du groupe Impressioniste et Synthetiste which helped spread the influence of their painting.