Arthur Tooth & Sons, London (no. A6969)
Private collection, London
Île de Houat is a fine example of Henry Moret’s Pont-Aven school period, and testifies to his admiration for Paul Gauguin. Although he was a native of Normandy and received an academic training in Paris, Henry Moret spent almost the entirety of his working life in Brittany. In 1888 he came to Pont-Aven, which had by then been an artist’s colony for over twenty years. Gauguin had just returned there from Martinique to embark on a second stay at the Pension Gloanec, where he was joined also by Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, and Ernest de Chamaillard.
Moret’s earliest artistic training took place in the Breton town of Loreint under Ernest Corroller, a disciple of Corot and Courbet who introduced him to plein air painting. Later as a student in the Ecôle des Beaux-Arts in Paris, his style betrayed leanings towards the Barbizon School of landscape painting. Throughout this period he continued to spend time in Brittany, and his first submission to the Salon in 1880 was entitled Marée Basse; Côte de Bretagne. In the ensuing years, he led a peripatetic existence exploring the coastline of Brittany, while still exhibited at the Paris Salon. The present painting depicts a view from a small island off the southern coast of Brittany.
Île de Houat, bears all the hallmarks of the artist’s Pont-Aven period, which lasted from 1888 until the mid-1890’s. In its palette and its handling of the medium, it compares closely with The Island of Raguenez, Brittany. The abbreviated description of the motif in both of these paintings points to Moret’s adherence to the practices of Synthetism, a frequent subject of conversation at the Pension Gloanec in the summer of 1888. According to this technique, the artist was to identify the salient characteristics of a motif and deploy these in order to capture the essence of his subject. Influenced by Japanese woodcut prints, Gauguin also advocated description of a motif by means of unmodulated colour instead of modelling, and tilting the perspective sharply up or downward. The result was an artistic accent considered suitable for the depiction of rural subjects and savage nature.
Gauguin, a charismatic and persuasive figure, believed that the painter should not ‘copy from nature too much. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than the actual result’ (Letter to Schuffenecker, quoted in Gauguin and the Pont-Aven Group (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1966, p. 8). In Île de Houat, Moret simplifies the view to give a condensed account of his motif. Meanwhile, thanks to his handling of the brush, the surface of the canvas is animated by a network of shimmering strokes of colour that emphasise the medium and concurrently diminish the pictorial content. Together with the simplification of form, these qualities are closely comparable with Gauguin’s Seascape with Cow on the Edge of a Cliff, which depicts a scene close to Le Pouldu.
By remaining in Brittany throughout his mature career, Henry Moret somewhat isolated himself from the art world. Nevertheless, in 1895 he entered into an agreement with the Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who successfully sold his paintings to collectors in Europe and America. Today, his paintings are held in such collections as Musée d’Orsay, the Hermitage, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museums and Galleries of Wales, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and many others.