Pont-Aven – “14 Watermills, 15 Houses”

The River Aven rushes past the old watermill

A charming “tag” for a very appealing place.  That’s how the petite village of Pont-Aven was described in the 19th century – definitely a lovely hamlet known for watermills and a thriving port.  Today the river Aven surges down the Black Mountains and crosses through the village before flowing past  fertile farms to the Atlantic Ocean.

The watermills helped Pont-Aven become a prosperous port, where grain was milled and conveyed along the waterways to the Breton coastline for eventual trade with England. Today, the four remaining watermills lend considerable charm to Pont-Aven, where visitors enjoy the sensory pleasure of wandering along willow-draped river banks and quaint bridges.  Our destination is the Grand Poulguin watermill, where we look forward to savory crêpes on the terrace overlooking the river and footbridge.

Another significant facet underscores the success of Pont-Aven.  In the mid 1800’s, a group of American painters happened upon the lively village and instantly were drawn to the light, colors, warm hospitality and traditional Breton costumes.  Thus an artists’ settlement was born, a settlement that would attract none other than Paul Gaugin.  The invention of paint in tubes allowed Gaugin and other artists to escape their studios and set up their easels in the midst of nature – a la “plein-air” painting.  Brittany became famous for the colorful canvas paintings of Breton landscapes.

Moulin du Grand Poulguin

From his room at Madame Gloanec’s boardinghouse, Gauguin and several like-minded artists founded the Pont-Aven School, where they created a painting style that varied from the dominant Impressionism of the day.  Strong symbolism, simplicity and broad strokes of pure color characterized their new style.

Unfortunately today’s cost of Gaugin paintings makes it impossible for the village to showcase his work, but the Musée des Beaux Arts de Pont-Aven includes an interesting profile of his turbulent life – Hommage à Gauguin and works by lesser-known Pont-Aven artists – Maurice Denis, Émile Bernard, Émile Jordan, and Emmanuel Sérusier.

The whole Pont-Aven atmosphere urges me to take my own easel (and a bottle of wine) for an easy afternoon along the river.

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