Le Pouldu was where the roads came to an end. The Laita river bounded it on one side; the ocean on another. It was known for its sand dunes: farmers would bring their wagons from inland and load them with sand to thin the heavy soil. Others came to harvest kelp to fertilize their fields. There was a ferry service—whatever you are picturing, scale it back—that could carry people and animals across the space where the Laita met the ocean, from Le Pouldu to Guidel. The census of 1886 recorded 11 households. It was a village so small that it didn’t even have a bakery.
There was little to recommend Le Pouldu if you weren’t looking for seaweed, sand, or to get across the mouth of the Laita. Why did Marie Henry choose to settle there? Her family had lived in Moëlans, 10 kilometers away, which was a greater distance then than it is now. Dig around in French public records from the second half of the 1800s, and you'll find that many died in the same village where they had been born. But Marie Henry left Moëlans and settled in Le Pouldu: why?
None of the references I have found that mention Marie Henry have asked how she ended up in Le Pouldu and not some other village or town. Almost every Gauguin source mentions her, at least in passing; Gauguin's time in Le Pouldu was transformative for his art. Art historians and curators have written hundreds of pages about Gauguin's work from Le Pouldu. They all tend to repeat the same few tidbits about Marie Henry. She's not the focus of their story. Questions about Marie Henry only matter if you’re persuaded that her story matters. It matters to me because, just a few years from the moment when we find her handing over her cash money for a plot of land, she took possession of a set of paintings that she kept for the next thirty years. The collection included works that are now in Washington’s National Gallery of Art, MoMA, the National Gallery of Canada, and the National Gallery Prague. Not bad for a woman who had a rudimentary education. Why on earth did she keep them? It seems a worthwhile question to ask.
We won’t answer that this week, but maybe we can start to move towards an answer by thinking about why she chose Le Pouldu. And here’s what I have put together:
Of the eleven households in the 1886 census, five of them were made up of members of the Goulven family. Grandfather Pierre, aged 83, lived with his unmarried youngest daughter, Marie-Julienne, aged 37. He had been the ferryman for the Laita, in his prime; his children had grown up in Le Pouldu. Pierre’s son, also called Pierre, lived with his wife Thérèse, their youngest daughter, Angélique, and Angélique’s husband, Jean. They kept a small inn, a cabaret. Philomène Goulven, their eldest child, lived with her husband Gabriel and their young children. Gabriel was a customs seaman, one of three in the village. Thérèse Goulven, aged 28, lived with her two children and a maid. Thérèse was married, but her husband is not listed in the census. Perhaps he was working somewhere else, perhaps they had separated; I don’t know.
You may remember that Marie Henry bought her postage stamp of land from a couple called
Jean-Joseph Portier and Anne Even. They named their son Jean-Joseph after his father. On February 10, 1886, five months before Marie Henry bought her land, Jean-Joseph Portier married Angélique Goulven. The marriage took place in the county seat, Clohars-Carnoët. All four parents, the bride and groom, and the two witnesses signed the marriage certificate. It was unusual in rural France in 1886 for everyone in the wedding party to be literate.
Less than half of all residents of Finistère, the administrative district in which Le Pouldu sits, could sign their names, according to the census of 1872. In 1866, just over a quarter of women throughout France were able to sign their marriage contracts. What do the signatures tell us? That the families had some degree of education, which meant, in turn, some degree of middle-class respectability: a family educated its children in the days before free and compulsory education for both sexes only if it had a certain level of economic privilege. Both the Goulvens and the Portiers did.
When she married Jean Portier, Angélique was 26; her sister Thérèse was 28, and their elder sister Philomène was 31. Marie Henry was 27 in 1886. But being the same age doesn’t mean that these young women would have known each other, right? Of course not.
Except for this. Secondary sources, including those from Marie Henry’s descendants, agree that after her parents’ deaths Marie Henry became a boarding student at the Ursulines Convent in Quimperlé. The Ursulines were one of the largest orders of teaching nuns in France in the 1800s. Their convent-schools were all over the country, and, before
mandatory free state education was legislated in the early 1880s, the Catholic Church had a virtual monopoly on schooling. According to the census of 1872, 71 girls were resident students with the Ursuline Sisters in Quimperlé. Their names tell us that they came from all over the region of Quimperlé and Clohars-Carnöet; they were the daughters of comfortable farmers, shopkeepers, landowners, and merchants. One of them, in 1872, was a 13-year-old girl called A. Goulven.
In the spring of my senior year in college, I took a course on American history. I think it fulfilled a requirement. I know it met early in the morning on the top floor of ivy-covered Stetson Hall. Professor Tracy told us one day, or we read an article—the context of the memory is hazy, but the memory is clear—Professor Tracy said this: historians of the nineteenth century for a long time could not understand westward migration patterns from New England to…points west. How did groups self-select? They often didn’t have share a family name, they weren’t groups of brothers, or cousins, or school mates, or even neighbors. Then another historian came along (and you may be able to guess what was different about this one). This historian looked at the relationships between women in groups of migrants. And she (did you guess?) found that women were often the glue that bound the groups together. Sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends, even, yes, sometimes old school mates, if they were lucky enough to have been to school. Women consented to leave their homes and set up in a new place if they were going to have the support of their sisters and girlfriends.
And that’s what I thought of when I wondered why Marie Henry chose Le Pouldu. I thought that she had to have some reason to visit, and then, more, some reason to want to stay. These three young women, so close to her in age, could have been that reason. It’s possible—and I think we can even say it’s likely—that they knew each other as girls
in the Ursulines’ dormitories. That they giggled together after lights out and shared treats from home. That the Goulven girls brought the orphaned Marie home with them during the vacances, and that she got to know their parents. That she became a bonus daughter. Historian Tiya Miles has written that “there are a great many things about the past that we cannot know for certain, especially with regard to populations whose lives were mostly underrecorded or misunderstood.” Miles was writing about enslaved women and their descendants in the American South, but I think her point translates to other historical figures who have been overlooked and under researched. Women, like Marie Henry, who have been relegated to repeated tidbits and footnotes.
We cannot know for certain that these old friendships were what brought Marie Henry to Le Pouldu. We can know, though, that a comfortably off couple whose son lived there agreed to sell her a tiny plot of land, and then a second, for no apparent reason. There’s no family connection between the Henrys and the Portiers that I can find, and believe me, I’ve looked. Even today a single young women without significant family support might have a hard time putting enough together to buy a piece of land and build on it. There must have been some connection that made her seem like a safe bet, that made her seem like, in a village of 30 adults, Marie Henry was a good person to have around. I think that connection was female friendship.
I can see the Goulven sisters folding laundry and talking about Marie's plans, and hatching the idea that she could come there, could live amongst them. I can see them running after their children—in 1886 Thérèse and Philomène, between them, had four children under seven, two girls, two boys, and with the sisters so close in age and living next door, who knew who belonged to whom some days, as long as they were safe and fed. Plotting how it could work, how they could persuade her, how she would support herself. They knew her parents had run an inn; couldn’t she do that? And they could help her. It didn't have to be elaborate, just a place to get a drink and a bed for the night for one or two travelers. The Portiers had some land in the village that they weren’t using, not really. They could sell it to Marie. Whispered bedtime conversations between newlyweds, suggestions made and talked about over the family lunch on Sunday, and before long, time to tell Marie and persuade her. The notary is ready to draw up the deed. The next part of Marie Henry’s life is about to start.