At Marie Henry’s inn, the painters were not content with borrowing pots and pans for their still lifes: as the days grew shorter, Gauguin and de Haan took to painting the walls themselves. Gauguin to Vincent, December 1889:
[there’s] a rather large job which De Haan and I have undertaken together: a decoration for the inn where we eat. You begin with one wall, then you end up doing all four, even the stained-glass window. It’s something that teaches you a lot, and so it’s useful. De Haan has done a large panel on the actual plaster, 2 meters by 1.50 high. Enclosed I’m sending you a swift sketch of the thing—Peasant women from around here working with hemp against a background of ricks of straw.
Gauguin’s sketch has not survived, but the work itself did:
Meijer de Haan, Women working with flax, 1889, private collection.
The two painted their way around the room that winter: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, even a goose on the ceiling. Word has not come down to us what Marie Henry thought about having her guests constantly under foot with their brushes and palettes. We can imagine the everlasting smell of oil paint, how in the damp Breton weather it seeped into her clothes and hair and how even her baby’s skin carried a faint whiff of mineral spirits. The inn wasn’t large, and this was the dining room where Marie Henry served meals. How did that work, exactly? Did she move the tables into the center of the room and just keep reminding everyone about the wet paint? Or did she give up and consign the room entirely to her long-term boarders?
And the splotches on the floor: did she insist that the two use drop cloths? Her floor wasn’t even a year old; the plaster on the walls had barely had time to season and here they were, covering it with their odd and sometimes alarming designs. At least it varied the conversation in the bar. Every day the locals found new ways to scoff at the painters and their work. Gauguin with the halo and the snake, especially. Who paints themselves looking like that?
And yet. Yet she let them do it. And not only let them do it: Marie Henry sat for a portrait herself, and when it was finished consented to hanging it in the center of the wall facing the door. It was not a typical portrait of a woman from the time. Renoir’s 1889 portrait of a Parisian, Madame de Bonnières, was closer to the norm: here she sits in her best gown, fresh flowers on the corner table, hair carefully curled and pinned up.
Or take this 1891 portrait by society painter Léon Bonnat, of Madame Cahen d’Anvers swathed in white and gold satin and jewels. Another woman in her Sunday best gazing out at us, inviting us to notice her fine clothes and delicate features.
Nor was Marie Henry’s portrait similar to Gauguin’s portraits of women. Madeleine Bernard, the young artist Emile’s sister, had sat for Gauguin the year before and come out looking like she just might have a shiv tucked up her sleeve that she would not hesitate to use if you came any closer.
And earlier in 1889 he had painted the teenage Thérèse-Josephine de Nimal, daughter of a hoped-for patron, juxtaposing the young girl with a sculpture of a woman menstruating. Thérèse, with her nose red from the cold and skin blotchy with misery, is a far cry from poised and elegant lady. Madeleine and Thérèse both look attenuated, on edge. The images are charged with a disquiet energy.
Meijer de Haan’s portrait of shows Marie Henry sitting in an armchair nursing Léa. She cradles the baby in her arms, a tasseled receiving blanket wrapped around the baby’s shoulders. Léa is wearing a blue dress with a red hood that has slipped off her head. Marie, her dress unbuttoned to nurse, looks down at her child. She seems not to know we are even there, or maybe not to mind that we are there: this is her baby, her house, her quiet moment when the noise of the bar and the need to prepare the next meal have receded.
Portraits of women nursing have been around for centuries; they usually depict Mary nursing the baby Jesus. De Haan would have known these works from his art school days, and from museum visits. If someone has studied the number of Jewish artists from this era who drew on the iconography of the Madonna and child, I have not found that study. But my hunch is that it would be a small number, perhaps as small as the number of observant Jewish artists who painted still lifes of ham. De Haan’s painting—he called it Maternité—echoes all those centuries of Madonnas, but without the saints and angels. Marie Henry sits nursing at ease in front of de Haan with her dress undone. It is a private, quiet, domestic moment between mother and child--and the artist who captured it.
We must imagine that she was at ease, too, with her portrait taking pride of place in the dining room at the buvette. Anyone who stopped in for a cider could see it and assume what they liked about the young innkeeper: they could question her taste in art, and they could also gossip about her taste in men. Marie Henry sat for de Haan’s portrait in the winter of 1890, when Gauguin had gone up to Paris to see about some sales. Gauguin returned to Le Pouldu in early March to find the portrait finished--and de Haan sharing the innkeeper’s bedroom.