Cultural Tourism, Academic Painting and the Formulation of Breton Identity in late 19th Century Brittany

Olivia Robertson ’20

Julia Rogers Research Prize: Junior/Senior Winner


Due to a combination of a strong Celtic cultural influence and a centuries-long lack of interregional infrastructure connecting Brittany to the rest of France, Brittany, “administratively neglected and socially isolated,” remained fairly distinct from mainstream French culture through the 18th century. This only began to change drastically with mandatory military conscription for French men and mandatory, free, secular education in French across the nation, integrationist policies enacted in the last quarter of the 19th century. These were policies which forced Bretons to interact socially with mainstream French culture during their time serving in the military, as well as intellectually through their engagement with the teaching of a standardized French history in school. This forced awareness of their own “otherness” went on to spark self-conscious Breton Regionalist cultural and intellectual movements in the 19th century and a rethinking of the meaning of a Breton identity. At the same time, the opening up of the region to the outside world meant that non-Bretons were also given the opportunity to formulate their own ideas about the Breton culture. As demonstrated by Henry Blackburne’s Breton-specific travel-book and the comments therein about the idyllic setup for genre scenes to be found upon visiting the region, this sense of admiration, fascination, and exotification was an enormous draw for artists. Through the ways in which some of these artists depicted Brittany combined with knowledge of the cultural context they operated in, we can begin to understand the way that Bretons and non-Bretons alike began to think of the Breton culture in this period of dramatic flux. Mythologized in different ways by both cultural insiders and outsiders, these paintings show the kind of space Brittany occupied in the late 19th century artistic mind.

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