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This work was painted in 1888 during Gauguin’s second visit to Pont-Aven, where he met up again with Emile Bernard and his young sister Madeleine, aged 17; Gauguin duly fell in love with her. The young woman depicted in this canvas does not look like the angelic portraits painted by her brother. She seems older and her attitude is that of a woman daydreaming. Her hair worn up, her enigmatic gaze, her made-up eyes and the careful drawing of her lips all make her a thoroughly charming seductress.
The portrait is set in the traditional way within a very sober décor. The illustration visible in the upper part of the picture, which was long attributed to Degas, is identified as a print by Forain titled At the Opera. The presence of clogs, decorated with Breton motifs, evokes Madeleine’s attachment to Brittany. The broad swathes of colour, dominated by blue, made with a visible stroke in nuanced shades, enhance the model; as does the sinuous drawing of the face and arm, sometimes underscored by a ring, which contrasts with the rectilinear surfaces of the background. The decorative effect resulting from this interplay of lines and outlines shows the influence then being wielded on Gauguin by Japanese prints and the cloisonnism of Emile Bernard.
On the back of the portrait, Gauguin painted La Rivière blanche/The White River, a landscape in a very different style which reveals the experiments being undertaken by the artist in the early summer of 1888, which would culminate in a far-reaching change to his art.
Portrait of Madeleine Bernard, 1888
© Musée de Grenoble