A Street Market in Brittany 1902

Water colour on paper, 17 x 12 cm
Signed FH lower right, dated ’02

Private Collection, Wellington

Frances Hodgkins database (FH1322) www.completefranceshodgkins.com

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From Frances Hodgkins to Rachel Hodgkins, 28th July 1902, Rue de l’Apport, Dinan

I have been very industrious and up at 6 & out working by 7.30. The French are such early birds and the streets just as busy then, in fact busier than later in the day. Dinan is a first rate place – A variety of everything – old streets, peasant women, fruit stalls, river scenery, feudal castles & two ‘dashing’ cavalry regiments … I am sending out next week all I had for the November show which leaves me with an empty portfolio and it will be several months before I can hope to get some decent works together again.”

Market scenes were the essential element of Frances Hodgkins’ first trip to Europe between 1901 and 1903.  Living in the villages of Brittany in close proximity to the cafés and markets she carried small, easily portable watercolour sketching pads and paints enabling her to capture the picturesque vibrancy of village life en plein air.

Frances Hodgkins left New Zealand for the first time in February 1901 and from July that year spent five months in France, joining the painting classes of Penzance-based Norman Garstin at Caudebec-en-Caux. It was here that she met and made friends with English artists Maud Nickalls, Mrs Ashington, Peter Moffat Linder, Norman Garstin and his wife, and Auckland-born Dorothy Kate Richmond.

In 1902 she once again joined Garstin’s classes in Dinan, Brittany, arriving in the midst of a three week festival.  These painting classes enabled her to immerse herself in her art for the first time, without the distractions of family, domesticity and teaching obligations. However, she needed to supplement her modest savings with sales, and assuming that everyday life in turn-of-the-century rural France would appeal to New Zealand buyers, she sought suitable subject matter in the open countryside and towns. Subsequently the majority of these paintings were sent for exhibition in New Zealand.

Hodgkins’ market scenes were produced rapidly en plein air, as reflected in the fluidity of her ‘wet-on-wet’ brushwork, capturing a sense of the colour, action and informality of village life. But such an approach was not without its challenges, for Hodgkins was mindful that a female artist at an easel in the market-place was guaranteed to attract comment and the curiosity of the locals.

Writing to Isabel Field in September 1902 Hodgkins complained that  “the market scenes are the outcome of great mental strain with nerves at a tension and eyes bewildered with an ever-moving crowd” and notes the necessity to remain alert to the effect and relations of one thing to another.

A Street Market in Brittany depicts a typical farmers market, most probably Dinan, with the emphasis on the market stall holder sitting patiently on her stool in the hot sun dressed in the costume of the period, a blue corset dress and white calico bonnet. Her unshaded barrow du marché displays cheese. A man in his ‘whites’, most likely a butcher, stands at another stall in the middle distance with a hint of the market square trees in the background. Both figures wearing similar costumes are also evident in two 1902 watercolours, In the Meat Market, Dinan (FH0368, Private Collection) and Marketing, Dinan (FH0451, Aigantighe Art Gallery, Timaru) both of which were exhibited at the Otago Art Society in 1902.

Hodgkins sent watercolours of Dinan to her sister Isabel for exhibition in New Zealand in 1902 and was unhappy with the prices Isabel sold them for at McGregor Wrights Gallery in Wellington. “I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I got your letter … Of course I am touched & proud that they have sold so well, but was it wise dear to let them go for so little? A lump rises in my throat when I think of 12 pictures selling for £40.”  She suggested Isabel ask higher prices in the November 1902 Otago Art Society exhibition in Dunedin to help recoup expenses from her recent travels in Europe. Hodgkins’ market scenes are represented in the permanent collections of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

– Jonathan Gooderham