When Paul Gauguin boarded a train for Brittany in the summer of 1886, he was a respectable Paris stockbroker. By the time he reached his destination, however, he had reinvented himself.
Abandoning his wife, children and career, he was going to devote himself to painting. His journey was only 350 miles, but, over that distance, Gauguin, then 38, had been transformed from a bourgeois gentleman into a bohemian artist.
The results of that decision are on view next week, when the Gauguin Portraits exhibition opens at the National Gallery in London, featuring much of the work he produced in what was then considered a backwater.
Inspiring: In Concarneau, pictured, Gauguin contemplated the fishing boats bobbing on the waves — and got into a fight with locals over a woman
‘Brittany was regarded as both French and not-French at the same time,’ says Christopher Riopelle, co-curator of the exhibition. This remote corner was an oddity, populated by a strange Celtic people who spoke Breton, not French, and hung on to their customs.
‘It was seen as a deeply traditional and Christian community, where females still covered their hair in public,’ he adds.
Gauguin was captivated by the beauty of the local women, as surely as he would be during his later voyages to the South Seas.
One of a number of artists drawn to Brittany’s southern coast, Gauguin settled in the small town of Pont-Aven, where he found cheap lodgings, the convivial company of other painters and young Breton women willing to model.
He believed he had found his Garden of Eden. ‘I love Brittany, the wildness, the primitiveness,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend. ‘When my wooden clogs strike this granite ground, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful tone that I seek in my painting.’
Among woods and streams, he could work freely, as long as the locals left him alone.
But relations were often strained. In one hotel, the regulars wanted shot of these irritating interlopers. Going out to paint every morning, they would return to their lodgings for lunch, placing their wet canvases along the walls to dry.
There were complaints: the sight of their garish daubs was putting customers off their food. Could they eat elsewhere? Faced with eviction, the artists turned their wonderful artworks to the wall and lunchtime service was resumed.
In Brittany, Gauguin’s style became bolder and more colourful. He was captivated by the beauty of the local women
Today, Pont-Aven is proud of its artistic credentials, happy to proclaim itself the City of Painters. It was here that the power of colour was unleashed.
Gauguin and his circle threw off their airy style in favour of violent hues and bold forms. ‘There was a decisive break with naturalism and with Impressionists,’ says Riopelle.
Because colour expressed emotion, a tree could be purple or orange. Look at the technicolor, jewel-like shades of Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889) — above right — to appreciate the stylistic shift.
It’s no wonder that, in high summer, the town is packed with tourists strolling around in stripey Breton tops and drinking outside Les Ajoncs d’Or, the hotel where Gauguin lodged. But why not visit in autumn, as we did, when the leaves are turning a Post-Impressionist yellow and the day-trippers have departed?
We enjoyed a languid afternoon strolling along the banks of the Aven in the Bois d’Amour, much depicted by the artists.
Many of their works have made their way into the superlative town museum, more than justifying Pont-Aven’s claim to be the cradle of modern art.
We repaired next door to Les Ajoncs D’Or for oysters and filet mignon, around £30 for three courses. Be sure to book and turn up on time — diners arriving after 9pm were turned away.
Gauguin’s statue may dominate the centre of Pont-Aven, but his spirit is to be found throughout this region. Known as Finistère, ‘the end of the earth’, it is the westernmost part of France, jutting out into the Atlantic.
Gauguin settled in the small town of Pont-Aven, pictured, where he found cheap lodgings, the convivial company of other painters and young Breton women willing to model
This crinkled, cookie-cutter coastline also styles itself the Breton Riviera. With the sun shining every day, we extended our stay to explore Gauguin’s Eden: a 90-mile stretch of coastline between the walled harbour of Concarneau and the sandy beaches of Billiers.
Along our route, we passed stone farmhouses bordered by wild hydrangeas and stopped for cooling dips in sandy bays framed by cypresses.
Bowling along empty roads lined with orchards, we saw trees bent under the weight of apples. Perhaps this really was a Garden of Eden.
In Concarneau, Gauguin contemplated the fishing boats bobbing on the waves — and got into a fight with locals over a woman. Always a troublemaker.
Some 30 miles along the coast, at Le Pouldu, he lodged in La Buvette de la Plage, which is now a museum.
Make sure to stop at the family-run Hotel Du Pouldu, a favourite with the locals. Its riverfront cafe, the Ster Laita, has the shortest menu I’ve ever seen in France — oysters and shrimps.
We ended our road trip with a stay at the secluded Domaine de Rochevilaine, on a rocky headland. From its terrace, you are flanked by sea on three sides.
The setting sun turned the sky orange and the distant trees black. Or, as Gauguin would see it, violet and purple.
How fortunate we are that he travelled to the end of the earth for art.
Gauguin Portraits is at the National Gallery from Monday (nationalgallery.org.uk).
Brittany Ferries offers three nights’ B&B at Hotel Garrigae Cap Coz from £265 pp and three nights’ B&B at Domaine de Rochevilaine from £348 pp. Prices include return ferry crossing for a car plus two people on the Poole-Cherbourg route. Visit brittany-ferries.co.uk or call 0330 159 7000.