For many Post-Impressionist artists, the search for new and exotic subjects was a kind of aesthetic race for discovery. However, with limited funds and with just a day’s stage coach ride straight west from Paris, one might have encountered a new and foreign land: Brittany. The landscape and language, clothing and costumes, saints and legends and traditions would prove to be both foreign and seductive.
During three such trips in 1886, 1888 and 1889 Pont-Aven became the gathering place for Paul Gauguin and several of his contemporaries, including Paul Seruzier, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Emile Schuffenecker, and Meyer de Haan.[i]
There were many great ancient stories and myths in the Breton world, long before Christianity arrived. Spirits and wizards freely roamed the land. It is even rumored that Merlin himself is burried there, somewhere in the Broceliande Forest.[ii]
It is also a realm where one of the great classic sports was Sunday afternoon wrestling. Ongoing competitions and feats of strength. Sometimes playful, as in boys being boys, but other times very serious: man to man fights, not necessarily to the death, but clearly in order to establish a local heirarchy. Symbolically of course, it was a ritual re-enactment of the great Biblical story of Jacob wrestling the Angel.
This is where Paul Gauguin completed his very first religious painting. A gathering of Breton women on a Sunday afternoon, having a collective vision, inspired by a sermon on the subject of Jacob wrestling the Angel.
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said ‘Jacob.’”
“Then he said, ‘Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Tell me, I pray, your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peni’el, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penu’el, limping because of his thigh. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew of the hip which is upon the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.”[iii]
[i] Denvir, Bernard; Paul Gauguin The Search for Paradise: Letters from Brittany and the South Seas; Collins & Brown; London; 1992; pp. 154-155.
[ii] Aubert, O. – L.; Celtic Legends of Brittany; Coop Breizh; Spezet, Brittany, France; 1993.
[iii] “Genesis 32:22-32” The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version; Thomas Nelson & Sons; New York, Toronto, Edinbugh; 1952; p. 25.