On November 13th in Gallery 244 in the Impressionist exhibit of the European Art and Sculpture wing of the Museum and I found Pardon in Brittany by Gaston La Touche. It is a painting of Brittany, off the coast of France, during a feast day of a patron saint, where pilgrims would dress in traditional clothing, seeking forgiveness from the priest (who is seen leading a horse with a woman and child on it) during a pilgrimage called ‘pardons’ in 1896 in the evening.
The painting depicts a ceremonial practice of brittany, that dates back to ancient times. The ceremony is linked to Catholicism, and because of its ancient roots, it seems out of place in the realist, post impressionist period that it was painted in. This was during the industrial revolution, where modernization was in epic growth, and urban areas were expanding; more than that, the Catholic church, though still very powerful, had little to no influence in the art of the time due to the advancements in science and the birth of Transcendentalism. All of this makes this painting so countercultural. However, its difference is its power. La Touche’s choice of subject speaks to him and the culture he’s depicting, he’s showing a culture that is against the mainstream world and, despite rapid change, is still holding on to faith and the religious traditions they hold dear. This town is unchanging in a time that is constantly morphing.
Though the subject depicts ancient ceremony, the style in which its painted is modern to the time. It’s post impressionist style of soft lines, visible brushstrokes and use of color as its main definition, captures the spiritualism of the event. The softness of how it’s painted is so different from the other religious scenes, because it doesn’t show any drama or majesty, but a purity that is so particular to Post Impressionism. The candles, the use of the evening sky during the golden hour of sunset, are also powerful. This is what’s so epic about this painting: light is the main subject, not the horse, the priest, the woman and child, or even the crowd, but the use of light. That’s what captures your attention: the glow that radiates of the canvas. La Touche is deliberate in making everything defined by the light around them, the peoples faces are lit by the candles glow, or by the sunset, not by any use of contour or shading, La Touche doesn’t even give the people faces, only mere outlines. The most defined is the woman on top of the horse, she’s above the crowd, floating almost, with her silhouette outlined by the pinky beige of the sky, cutting into the negative space. Even more interesting is that everyone’s faces are looking ahead, except that of the priest, whose collecting the candles and granting intersession to the people, looking out among the pilgrims. If it were a true religious painting, than he would be the dominant image, however he blends into the sea of faceless white bonnets, perhaps symbolizing how the importance of priesthood had decreased, no longer the divine intercessor but one of the masses of pilgrims, hoping to be forgiven. Yet, the image of the woman and child standing out above the crowd may also symbolize Mary and baby Jesus and their divinity, yet even this is brought back to realism by the simplicity La Touche painted them.
Pardon in Brittany is similar to Monet’s Impression:Sunrise in style, period and intent. Both these were done during the Industrial Revolution, Monet was painting during the revolutions climax and La Touche painted his in a time when Industrialism had become apart of the society’s overall culture and was an established part of life. Yet both paint pauses amidst this increasing urbanization. La Touche, shows a culture that defies industrial secularism with their commitment to religious tradition, and Monet shows peace right before the beginning of a busy work day at the sunrise on the waterfront. Their use of color has impact on how you react to the paintings. La Touche uses warm tones in the sky and candles, even the white that takes up the majority of the painting are softer and flecked with gray and blue, giving the impression that it’s a cold day, yet despite that it’s warm in this collection of pilgrims. Monet exemplifies the impressionist’s use of the complimentary colors, the orange, almost salmon, sun against the light blue sky, its reflection cutting into the blue of the water is intense, though Monet opted for a more prismatic effect for his colors than La Touche, they both use loose color as the definition of their subjects. Also, neither of the artists hid their brushstrokes. Monet’s streaks of paint are very clear, and give it a rough, unfinished look. La Touche didn’t hide his obvious blending for the sky and candles, and in one section in the sea of white bonnets, you can see the smudged layers of blue, gray and white where he didn’t even bother to make individual heads. Finally, light is the central point of both Pardon and Sunrise. In Pardon, light is what draws and keeps your attention, with Sunrise the sun and its reflection is the the first thing you see, light is what defines and illuminates everything in the paintings, (people, harbor, boats, horses). How these paintings are lighted defines how you see the images and the emotion in which the artists created them.
What drew me to this painting was how quiet it was. I know it’s ironic to call a painting quiet, but when I see certain paintings I hear the sound the image or event would make. Like with the Midnight Watch you hear the raucous sound that moment is, through the movement that’s been painted, and in the Post Impressionism the focus is industry or the life of everyday man, all of these create a “noisy” painting because of the action pictured. But with Pardon it was so out of place in the gallery, so quiet amidst the other paintings it drew me. The scene looked quiet, not mute, but quiet, as though the people, the movements, the encapsulation of this sacred ceremony made everyone and everything silent. Not only this, but the manner in which the painting is done makes it feel like you’re there, amongst the crowd. The quiet nature of this painting isn’t just in the image, but also in how it was painted. Unlike the paintings of the time, it used soft colors, not the intense density common in impressionism. It glowed in a way that was intimate and raw, yet hazy. La Touche’s softness has a counter effect: the simplicity exposes a powerful moment of spiritualism that had been preserved amongst a secular society. Its holistic and jarring at the same time. Despite the simplicity of this painting, it’s one that I cannot forget.