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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

53. Two men walk into a bar

A friend opened a bakery-café about 10 years ago in my hometown. She leased a downtown store front, bought a second hand professional oven, changed the plumbing around, and built tables. She refinished an old church pew and installed under the long front window for seating. Friends and family helped, but it was her vision and her name on the bank loans. For a while it was touch and go whether the place would survive: most independent coffee houses don't. Her goal was to make it through the first year. There have been ups and downs since, but ten years later the place is a local landmark.

Marie Henry must have looked at the calendar as she nursed Léa and hoped that she would still be in business in 1890. 1889 was a big year in France: the summer brought local and national celebrations for the centennial of the 1789 Revolution. The largest newspaper in southern Brittany, L’Union Agricole et Maritime, reported on local fêtes nationales, whole days of celebrations featuring picnics, horse races, fireworks, and dancing. L’Union also covered the Exposition Universelle, everything from what and where to eat, to how to go to the top of M. Eiffel’s new tower, to which Breton artisans and manufacturers had work on display. And there were regular articles on livestock, fishing, and the best ways to make hard cider.

Le Pouldu made the news only a few times. L’Union reported on one drowning, one shipwreck (the captain, who had four young children, did not survive; the crew did), and a rabid dog being spotted in the neighborhood. Not as noteworthy as the opening of the Eiffel Tower, but a lot to live through, and plenty to talk about over a drink. The bar of the Buvette de la Plage was a place where locals could catch up and tell stories. Maybe Marie Henry subscribed to L’Union as a draw for her customers who could read: there may not have been many literate locals, but it only takes one person to read aloud to a crowd.

The young innkeeper must have heard the same conversations over and over as she stood behind the bar pouring drinks or going back and forth to the kitchen to stir the soup. She likely knew every version of the shipwreck story and could tell where truth stopped and exaggeration took over. She knew the local news, too, all the daily life that didn’t make the paper: who was planting what, and when. Who was unhappy at home, who was in debt, and who wasn’t sure how they were going to feed the baby that was on its way. Who was looking for work and who was hiring. Likely most of her customers forgot she could hear them, and maybe after a few months, she stopped listening. She had heard it all.

In August two new customers, with new conversations, turned up. They wandered in off the dunes one day, dropped their knapsacks on the floor, and took a seat. They kept to themselves and the locals gave them a wide berth: they were not from around there; one of them wasn't even French. One of the men was taller than the other, with piercing blue eyes over a prominent nose, a mustache, and a scruffy beard. The other was a head shorter and had a slight hunch. The men often came in for lunch or a late afternoon drink, their hands and clothes marked with daubs of bright paint that gave them a clownish air. The taller one seemed to talk more, the shorter one to listen and speak slowly. His French faltered as often as not, and Marie Henry, standing behind the bar, wondered how much of his companion’s long emphatic speeches he followed.

The taller one tried to chat her up when she stopped by their table. Most of her customers did; it was a hazard of being a young woman in business on her own. She had to be firm, clear, and quick to keep men at arm’s length. The quieter man sometimes seemed embarrassed and always a little shy. That shyness and that faltering French were, perhaps, what began to draw Marie Henry to check on their drinks a little more often.

As the two became regulars, she learned that they were staying up the road in Keranquernat at the hotel run by Victor and Marie-Jacquette Destais. It was a bigger place than her

buvette—and more expensive. The two were painters, both of them, and had been at Pont-Aven earlier in the summer. They had come to Le Pouldu because it was cheaper and there were fewer distractions. The smaller man—his name was de Haan, he was Dutch, she had never met un hollandais—treated the other with a little deference, maybe a little encouraged awe. The Frenchman frequently examined de Haan’s sketches and studies, offering notes and tips. De Haan wrote to a Dutch friend in Paris that October about how he had been developing his style and form:

De Haan decided early in the fall that he wanted to stay in Le Pouldu for the winter, at least, possibly longer. He let the Destais know that he was looking for a studio to rent; they spread the word, and soon the Mauduit family, who lived in Quimperlé but had a house near the dunes, had agreed to rent de Haan the attic floor to use as his workspace. Marie Henry overheard the whole process from her post behind the bar and, at some point, plucked an idea out of the air.

She had been thinking about how manage the winter months. The long summer days were drawing to a close. Her business could take a serious hit when the season changed: sideways rain and howling winds could keep her customers at their own firesides. A steady income for the winter would help keep the doors open. What if the artists boarded with her instead of with the Destais? The buvette was smaller than the hotel, but that also meant that they could just about have the run of the place—and pay less. She wasn’t so sure about the French one, but de Haan seemed like a safe bet for a paying guest.

Paul Gauguin checked in to the Buvette de la Plage on October 2, 1889. Meijer de Haan moved his things in on October 14. Gauguin would have three long stays at Marie Henry’s over the next year. During that year other artists came and went: Paul Sérusier, Charles Filiger, and, likely, Louis Roy. Their room and board helped keep the Buvette solvent during its critical first year. The Dutchman arrived in October 1889 stayed for the next twelve months. The Buvette de la Plage survived. It became not only a local institution but a lieu de mémoire, a place vested with significance in the story of modern art. That year, those guests, changed everything for Marie Henry.

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