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B R E T O N  P A I N T I N G S  F O R 

Mathurin Méheut 1882 – 1958

Photograph of a Breton Pardon painting by Mathurin Mehuet.

Penmarc'h, le pardon Notre-Dame de la Joie

Casein on paper laid on canvas 99x136cm
Signed by the artist
Provenance: Private collection, France

Price on application: dominick [at] or telephone 353-1-269 3486

In February 2013, the National Maritime Museum in Paris devoted a major exhibition to the multi-faceted talents of Mathurin Méheut. Appointed painter to the French Navy in 1921, Méheut worked throughout his life within a marine environment. Originally celebrated for his work as an illustrator, this versatile Breton became an established engraver, designer, sculptor and painter, not to mention his extraordinary work in ceramics at the famed Henriot pottery in Quimper and at the equally celebrated Sèvres porcelain workshops.

Méheut was born in Lamballe, just a short distance outside Saint-Brieuc on the road to Rennes. From an early age, he showed signs of his artistic genius and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts de Rennes. He graduated at the tender age of twenty and set out to make his name in the artistic quarters of Paris. However, his roots remained firmly in Brittany, which became the principal source of inspiration for his life’s work. He became a contributor to the prestigious magazine, ‘Art et Décoration’ and a two year sojourn in Roscoff inspired ‘Étude de la Mer, Flore et Faune de la Manche et de l’Océan’, which was met with great acclaim. After a successful exhibition in Paris in 1913, he set sail for Japan but his excursion there was unfortunately interrupted by war.

Shortly after his return from Japan, he became official painter to the Department of the Marine. By the early 1920s, his work as an illustrator was in great demand with authors such as Maurice Génevoix and Pierre Loti. He also collaborated with Colette, who became a great friend. She was best known for her novel, Gigi, which Lerner and Loewe turned into the famous stage and screen musical of the same name. Florian Le Roy's ‘Vieux Métiers Bretons’ of 1944, with 350 superb illustrations by Méheut, is regarded as a classic.

Although his travels took him far afield, the vast majority of his work centres on Brittany where he moved from village to village making rapid sketches of field workers, harvesters and village life. Using his extraordinary personal vision, these drawings were later worked up to full size on return to his studios in Paris in a manner which bordered on Symbolism. However, not content to render his work in traditional oil paint, he sought to convey the spirit of his observations in whatever medium would best portray his subject matter. In the current work, he chose casein as the binding medium, an aqueous paint made from skimmed milk. This versatile medium has been in use since the Renaissance and has stood the test of time well. One of the unique features of this medium is that it takes on a wonderful matte velvet finish, not dissimilar to egg tempera. The surface dries to a very resilient water resistant finish. In our example, an additional lustre appears to have been achieved by the addition of gold in the decoration of the costume.

The Pardon was a very popular subject with the artists who worked in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. They found the colourful pageantry and throngs of worshippers in their fine costume irresistible. Examples range from Walter Chetwood Aiken’s monumental Pardon of Sainte-Barbe to the tiny panels of Alide Goldschmidt, which we included in our 2006 catalogue. The Pardon gets its name from the Latin perdonare, and refers to the indulgence granted on the feast day of the patron saint of a particular chapel. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1914, pilgrims from every walk of life flock to the Pardons, clad in their best costume. The greater part of the day is spent in prayer and the Pardon begins with Mass at four o’clock in the morning. Its observance, however, actually commences the preceding evening with confession and the rosary. After the religious service, a great procession takes place around the church. At St. Anne d'Auray, for example, this procession is especially striking and impressive. All those whom the intercession of St. Anne has saved from peril and danger join in. The sailors are there with fragments of the vessel upon which they escaped a shipwreck; the lame are there carrying on their shoulders the crutches, which they no longer need; and those rescued from fire carry the rope or ladder, which they used to escape from the flames.

Méheut packs much of this sentiment into the current work and it is hardly by coincidence that the central character in the foreground is severely crippled. Even so, this old man settles with his extended family as they form a circle, seated on the bare ground. The main procession makes its way along an undulating road towards the distant village, with sodality banners commemorating different saints carried high on stout poles. A tri-master barque under full sail appears on the horizon and leaves us in no doubt that the scene depicts a coastal village. Between the barque and the foreground group, only the extraordinary headdress of the Bigoudennes appear above the stone walls which, together with the distant white-washed cottages, are reminiscent of Paul Henry’s West of Ireland scenery.

The small chapel of Notre-Dame de la Joie sits on the waterfront at St. Guénolé on the southern end of the baie d’Audierne, just below Penmarc'h. This particular pardon was a popular subject with the local artists and those from further afield who were undoubtedly attracted there by the colourful pageantry and the unusual head dress worn by the women. The pardon traditionally takes place in the middle of August and continues to this day. On grounds of style, it is possible to suggest a date of 1921 for the current version.


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