In the spring of 1888, van Gogh retired to Arles in Provence. This was the beginning of a period of creative frenzy, during which he also created the watercolor seen at the Galleria d'Arte Moderna. Paul Gauguin joined him in October 1888. Gauguin arrived in Arles with a painting by Émile Bernard (1868–1941) in tow, Le pardon à Pont-Aven. Bernard had spent the summer of 1888 with Gauguin in Brittany, forming the society of artists known as the Pont-Aven School, which took its name from the town where they stayed.
Firsthand observation of Bernard's painting—which is documented as having been in the home of the 2 artists for almost 2 months—inspired van Gogh to create a copy. Le pardon de Pont-Aven is the only surviving work on paper from the 9 weeks van Gogh and Gauguin lived together. The watercolor depicts a large group of people, many of them dressed in traditional Breton garb. Bernard's original aim—though it was later abandoned by van Gogh—was to depict the native population during a religious celebration.
The characters are scattered across a flat, 2-dimensional space: the presence of a girl in fashionable clothing, and 2 ladies with elegant dresses and umbrellas in the background, serves to emphasize the contemporaneity of the scene portrayed. Van Gogh's study is a reinterpretation of the original, rather than a faithful replica. The use of watercolor led to inevitable chromatic alterations compared to the model: the solid color tones of the oil paints used in the original are diluted and dampened in the watercolor recreation. Depth is suggested only by the reduced dimension of the figures, as in the prototype. The artist also copies the sharp outlines from the original model—one of the most recognizable features of Bernard's Cloissonist style.