Artwork of the Month - July 2016

Breton Woman, 1939

Breton Woman
Oil on canvas
91.7 x 73.7 cm / 36 x 29 in
Private collection, London

Although signed and dated 1942, the work was in fact painted in the summer of 1939 when Scott and his wife Mary were living and working in Pont-Aven, Brittany. It was one of the paintings which Scott had to roll up to take with him on the boat from Saint-Malo when the couple hurriedly left France for England at the end of August 1939 (their car was not allowed on the boat).

Scott later identified the sitter as ‘Marie Henry’, an elderly woman who lived outside Pont-Aven and who claimed to have sat for Gauguin. As he said in a lecture he recorded for the British Council in 1972, ‘She had not heard of his death until I told her.’ (She may have been the same Marie Henry [1859–1945] who kept the inn at Le Pouldu where Gauguin settled in October 1889.) In the same lecture Scott went on to tell his audience, ‘the picture is not influenced by Gauguin,’ and explained, ‘it is a tonal work and painted in a scheme of grey that would actually relate more to a Whistler concept.’ In fact, the pale blue detail in the Breton coif and the pale green of the chair are evidence of Scott’s affinity with Corot’s tonal use of colour, even though the studied flatness of the paint probably owes more to Scott’s interest in the work of Gauguin (in spite of his denial), and in Gauguin’s Pont-Aven followers such as Émile Bernard.

So how did the erroneous date ‘1942’ come about? In fact, the ‘W. SCOTT 42’ inscribed on the recto is not in Scott’s hand. According to the artist, when the painting was first exhibited, at his one-man show at the Leger Galleries in London in September 1942, a restorer working for the gallery painted the signature and the date 1942 on the work without realising that it was a work of 1939. The correct date was given in the exhibition catalogue and, perhaps pleased that the painting sold, Scott did not seem too concerned by either the addition itself or the error contained within it.