Pierre-Charles Poussin’s painting of 1851 shows a crowd of pilgrims who have gathered for the Pardon day at Guingamp in Brittany. Pardons were a Breton tradition in which the faithful would gain absolution for their sins in return for joining a procession to worship at selected shrines.
Brittany, with its ancient traditions and costumes, became a popular subject with artists in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Poussin revels in the quaintness of the woodland scene. He creates a panorama filled with small details – from a scuffle and a pedlar hawking ribbons to a woman peeling turnips and mothers nursing babies. The decorous nature of the scene perhaps suggests that it is taking place before the festivities are fully underway. Poussin’s interest is not in the religious aspect of it all but in the colourful and picturesque nature of the gathering.
This vibrant scene shows a crowd of pilgrims who have gathered to honour Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours at Guingamp, in Brittany. Pardon days, which take place on the first Sunday in July and the preceding Saturday, are a mixture of piety and celebration. Once the pilgrims, dressed in their finest costumes, have confessed their sins, Mass and Vespers follow. After the faithful have been granted absolution the festivities start. The Pardon is an ancient Breton tradition that is thought to go back to the conversion of Brittany by Celtic monks.
This folkloric scene and the ancient faith it suggested became popular with painters in the second half of the nineteenth century when Brittany itself became accessible courtesy of the railways, and Parisians came into contact with the region’s picturesque costumes and traditions. Jules Breton, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret and Charles Cottet all painted Pardons, while Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard also painted mystical versions of Breton religious life.
Pierre-Charles Poussin was born in Paris, and was taught by Léon Cogniet and, according to a birth certificate he witnessed in 1860, Marie-Félix Parmentier. He exhibited at the Salon from 1842, often showing scenes of Breton peasant life. He also tried his hand at classical landscapes in the manner of his namesake Nicolas Poussin. His Breton pictures could have a rough edge, showing, for example, boys stoning a tethered goose for fun or a donkey frightened by two men brawling.
Pardon Day in Brittany was painted in 1851 and has the wide sweep of a panorama. It is a scene to be read from side to side, and Poussin has filled it with small incidental details to catch the eye. A scuffle has broken out in the background on the right; a pedlar sells ribbons to a cluster of onlookers to the left; a broken bottle in the foreground suggests that drink has been taken; a woman peels turnips and fish are laid out ready for the meal. In front of the pilgrims a still life of shellfish, apples, pitchers, vegetables and ham advertises the artist’s skill.
In 1870 an English visitor described the Guingamp Pardon gathering as a ‘frank but sedate festivity and merry-making under the trees’. The action here is indeed decorous, suggesting that this halt in the woods is taking place prior to the celebrations. Then, perhaps, things might come to resemble the peasant wedding scenes painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which this image brings to mind. This moment of calm, however, allows Poussin to show his skill at capturing costumes (repeated elements of red, turquoise and buff tie the image together) and the picturesque variety of poses, faces and ages (there is a child on the far left, the far right and in the middle of the foreground groups, leading the eye across the picture).
It is clear that Poussin’s interest is above all pictorial: this may be a religious gathering but there isn’t a single priest or crucifix to be seen.
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