The sardine boats in painting - part 2

Although many 19th century painters portrayed the industrial changes that marked the society of their time, few of them focused on the most precarious and underpaid female industrial work of the time on a national scale. The artists we present in this weekly Sunday column therefore deserve our full attention.

The second painting recorded on the theme of female cannery workers is by the Breton painter Alfred Guillou (1844 - 1926). As described in the Quimper Museum of Fine ArtsThe artist is "viscerally a man of the sea". Born in the port city of Concarneau (southern Finistère) to a father who was a sailor and boat owner, the artist spent his early years as a cabin boy on board his father's ships. It was on the quays of his native port that he met the artist Eugène Isabey in the 1850s. According to the little anecdote told by Caroline Legrand in an article for the gazette DrouotIt was while carrying Isabey's easel from the quay to the hotel that the young Guillou found his vocation. The following decade, he had another decisive encounter with the lithographer Théodore Lemonnier, with whom he took his first drawing lessons.

It was on Lemonnier's advice that Alfred Guillou moved to Paris in 1862. In the capital, he attended the Académie Suisse for a while, then continued his training at Alexandre Cabanel's studio. It was there that he met Henri Regnault, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Fernand Cormon and Théophile Deyrolle, who would become his inseparable friend and future brother-in-law. In Paris, Guillou quickly tired of the great painting and abandoned mythological subjects in favour of representations of his native Brittany. He exhibited for the first time at the Salon in 1868 where he presented his work "Young Breton fisherman". Thereafter, he regularly exhibited his works at the Salon, where Breton subjects, synonymous with exotic folklore for Parisians, met with great success. As Francis Dupont so aptly put it in an article for the newspaper Le Télégramme de Brest et de l'Ouest in 2017: "Alfred Guillou paints scenes of daily life on his canvases and seduces with the authenticity and realism of his line."[1].

Close to naturalist painting, he draws his favourite subjects from the daily life of his native town. He often works in large formats, as in the painting Landing of tuna à Concarneau (1902, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Saint-Brieuc). Thus, as also mentioned Caroline Legrand Alfred Guillou gives these slices of life an impressive monumentality, breaking the boundary between the genre scene and historical painting.

Théophile Deyrolle, Portrait of the painter Alfred Guillou, 1901, oil on canvas, 129.5 x 91 cm, Musée des beaux arts de Quimper
Théophile Deyrolle, Portrait of the painter Alfred Guillou, 1901, oil on canvas, 129.5 x 91 cm, Musée des beaux arts de Quimper
Alfred Guillou, Landing of the tuna at Concarneau, 1906, oil on canvas, 136 x 106 cm, Musée d'art et d'histoire de Saint-Brieuc
Alfred Guillou, Landing of the tuna at Concarneau, 1906, oil on canvas, 136 x 106 cm, Saint-Brieuc Museum of Art and History
Alfred Guillou, Femmes de pêcheurs de Pont-Aven, oil on canvas, 66.3 x 97 cm, private collection
Alfred Guillou, Femmes de pêcheurs de Pont-Aven, oil on canvas, 66.3 x 97 cm, private collection
Alfred Guillou, Adieu, 1892, oil on canvas, 170 x 245 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper
Alfred Guillou, Adieu, 1892, oil on canvas, 170 x 245 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper
Alfred Guillou, La ramasseuse de goémon, 1899, oil on canvas, Musée des Jacobains de Morlaix
Alfred Guillou, La ramasseuse de goémon, 1899, oil on canvas, Musée des Jacobains de Morlaix

After nine years in the capital, the artist returned to his native town in 1871. With his friend Théophile Deyrolle, he founded an artists' colony in Concarneau on the same model as the one established in Pont-Aven by Paul Gauguin, while defending a very different artistic trend (realism for the Concarneau colony versus synthetism for the Pont-Aven colony). This artistic colony in Concarneau had a notable influence on many artists for whom the customs and secular traditions of the Breton people represented a form of primitivism. It made Concarneau famous until the middle of the 20th century. Its painters highlighted the daily life of the fishermen and workers of this important Finistère port specialising in sardines and tuna.

Alfred Guillou, Les Sardinières de Concarneau, 1896, oil on canvas, 151 x 221 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper
Alfred Guillou, Les Sardinières de Concarneau, 1896, oil on canvas, 151 x 221 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper

The artist's fame extended to the political sphere. The state acquired a very famous work by the artist, the painting "Adieu", which was presented at the 1892 Salon. The work was then exhibited at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 where it won a medal. It is currently on deposit at the Quimper Museum of Fine Arts. The museum also houses the work of particular interest to us in the Musée de la conserverie: The Sardinières of Concarneau (1896). In this painting, the artist gives a light, almost idealised representation of the daily life of female cannery workers. They walk arm in arm along the quay in the port of Concarneau, their aprons flying to the rhythm of their rhythmic steps. Unlike the painting by Peder Kroyer studied in the previous article, the women in the foreground of this painting are wearing the Sunday headdress of Giz Fouën ("fashion of Fouesnant"). The historian Jean-Pierre Gonidec, a great specialist in Breton costumes, has written an article for the Geo magazineA very nice summary of the symbolism of this headdress:

"It revealed a little of the nape of the neck and the hair. A revolution in the ancient bishopric of Cornouaille, which required women to hide their hair. Slender like the spires of a cathedral, the Fouesnant headdress is an imposing construction (...) The six elements of which it was composed were supported by a very starched cotton bonnet, where the wings and the straps, which had become decorative but which, in the old fashions, were tied under the chin, were wrapped. The positioning of the wings dominating the whole was different from one commune to another in the Pays de l'Aven. The imposing collar, with its complex pleating, completed the Sunday finery, highlighting the face of the person wearing it.

The connoisseur, whose sharp eye will take a longer look at the canvas, will be able to discern other headdresses, such as the famous "Penn sardin". The women wearing them are relegated to the right-hand corner of the painting, sitting on the edge of the quay. Another headdress is also present on this canvas and comes from even further away than the Douarnenez region. It is the headdress of the Pagan country, located on the north-west coast of Finistère, above Brest. The specialist Jean-Pierre Gonidec provides the following description:

"It is often recognisable by the large and voluminous ceremonial headdress. However, it is also one of the few regions where the cotton working headdress is coloured. Worn for work in the fields, it was blue with white polka dots with two small wings at the base on each side, while at the top two pleated corners known as "cat ears" were raised. This type of headdress was also made of white tulle for Sundays, when the small everyday shawl was replaced by a very covering one decorated with fringes.

In Alfred Guillou's painting, the Pagan headdress is worn by a figure in the background. The woman in question is standing from behind. She is walking towards the end of the quay where the sardines are being unloaded. She is wearing the Sunday headdress with a blue ribbon and white polka dots, as well as a white shawl with fringes. Through the diversity of the headdresses on this canvas, the artist conveys the importance of her native port which attracts workers from all over Finistère.