Gauguin at café Volpini

A significant moment in the history of the Synthetism art movement, the exhibition at the Café Volpini revealed all the nuances of an innovative art form embodied by Gauguin and Bernard.

In parallel with the 1889 Universal Exhibition, distanced from the official pavilions, Gauguin, Bernard, and their friends exhibited their creations in the Café des Arts (also said Café Volpini) of Monsieur Volpini, on the Champ-de-Mars, opposite the Pavillon de la Presse (Press Pavilion). In order to retain the prestigious reputation of Impressionism, they named themselves officially to mark the occasion, opting for the Impressionist and Synthetist Group.

Poster "Exhibition of Paintings by the Impressionist and Synthetist Group (1889/1889) by AnonymousMuseum of Pont-Aven

The promotional poster for the exhibitions shows all the artists who exhibited there. It includes a mysterious Némo. This was none other than the young Émile Bernard, who chose that pseudonym in tribute to the famous novel by Jules Verne.

Paul Gauguin presented several paintings and a series of 11 zincographies on yellow paper, while Émile Bernard showed his Bretonneries in a single illustration box, available upon request. The artworks didn't become commercially successful. However, despite all the odds, it was the first public presentation of artwork from the Synthetist movement. This exhibition went down in history under the name of the Volpini Exhibition.

Project for a plate - Leda (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

Project for a plate, Leda

Created by Gauguin, this zincography was the cover of the exhibition portfolio. Depicting the mythological figure of Leda, enveloped in the wings of Zeus who had transformed into a swan, its unique quality is primarily the symbolic scope of the composition.

Up to the mid-19th century, print was still viewed as a procedure reserved purely for facilitating the reproduction and distribution of creative works, thereby relegating the engraver to the rank of craftsman rather than artist.
However, the artists of the Pont-Aven School were actively involved in turning print into an art form and the zincographies from the exhibition in the Café Volpini made by Gauguin and Bernard demonstrate it.

Joys of Brittany, Paul Gauguin, 1889/1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
The oxcart, a souvenir of Brittany, Paul Gauguin, 1898/1899, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
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The novelty resided in the autonomy of the artists who engraved their own compositions, and who practiced this activity as an art in its own right.

The Washers (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

The Washers

Depicting two Breton women on the banks of a river, through its undulating lines, this creation is a testament to the complex expertise required by printing.

The technique is very similar to lithography in that it is based on the same chemical principles. It was often used at the end of the century for printing posters or press illustrations. Artists benefited from the zinc plate on a heavy block of limestone rock, which they could work on in their own studios before entrusting it to a printer like Edward Ancourt, who had one of the best reputations and who worked on Gauguin's prints.

The Dramas of the Sea. A descent into the maelstrom, Paul Gauguin, 1889/1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
The Dramas of the Sea, Brittany, Paul Gauguin, 1889/1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
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Gauguin envisaged printing—particularly in the early days of his practice—as a means of making himself known.

The Human Misery (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

Human misery

A unique zincography created in hematite, this piece is bursting with symbols and personal references. Combining subjects from Brittany and Arles, Gauguin depicted a listless woman as an incarnation of the figure of Eve.

Breton women at the gate, Paul Gauguin, 1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
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The old people in Arles (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

For his zincography series presented during the exhibition in Café Volpini, Gauguin was inspired by his earlier canvases (as with this one, which repeats a motif from his oil-on-canvas work Arlésiennes de 1888) and puts together an assortment of forms that he could draw from.

Breton bathers (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

Breton bathers

Regularly using biblical metaphors, the artist evoked the fall of Eve through this young country girl hesitating to bathe.

Pastorals. Martinique (1889/1889) by Paul GauguinMuseum of Pont-Aven

Two Creole women warmly embrace in the company of a European-style tree alongside a leafy palm tree.

 A goat feeding milk to its black kid directly evokes rural morals. 

In the distance, a few lines sketch out the rolling fields.

The mutual influence between Gauguin and Bernard can be detected in their respective sequences of zincographies (a series of 11 for Gauguin and around 6 for Bernard) viewable upon request during the exhibition of the Impressionist and Synthetist Group.

Each of the compositions reveals strong Synthetist tones: simplified shapes, the influence of Japonism, and expressions of each artist's emotional state. Bernard's first print run extended to only around 15 copies, before he went on to produce new print runs in Egypt in 1896.

Breton women hanging out the washing, Emile Bernard, 1889/1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
Breton women making hay, Emile Bernard, 1889/1889, From the collection of: Museum of Pont-Aven
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During the exhibition, Bernard displayed his Bretonneries in the same box as Gauguin's drawings. As with Gauguin's work, Bernard's art did not achieve commercial success. He later adorned his art with watercolors to drive sales.

Bretonneries, title page (1889/1889) by Emile BernardMuseum of Pont-Aven


While Bernard employed the same techniques as Gauguin in his art, the same level of care was not taken during the printing stage, and didn't result in the same image quality.

Credits: Story

Thanks to Nolwenn-Marie Biamba, apprentice in 2021
Sophie Kervran, director and curator of museums
Camille Armandary, in charge of exhibitions and communication

(c) Musée de Pont-Aven

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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