The Pont-Aven School of painters first exhibited together in 1889. The moving spirit was Paul Gauguin, who selected the participants from among his painting companions at Pont-Aven in Brittany. The venue for the exhibition was the Cafe Volpini, a cafe across the road from the official art exhibition of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Pont-Aven painters called their exhibition L'Exposition de Peintures du Groupe Impressioniste et Synthetiste, a collection of about one hundred works by eight artists.
Like many other artists, Gauguin had gone to Pont-Aven because it was a colourful, cheap, sometimes primitive place to live and work. In 1886 Gauguin wrote to his wife that he had gone to Pont-Aven to 'create art in a backwater: His hotel bill came to only sixty francs a month. Gauguin's taste for the exotic was probably first satisfied in Brittany. He wrote, 'I like Brittany, it is savage and primitive. The flat sound of my wooden clogs on the cobblestones, deep, hollow, and powerful, is the note I seek in my painting'.
He found like-minded artists in Brittany, and formulated, with Emile Bernard, a synthetist theory of art. The synthetist painters worked to Maurice Denis's precept' . . . that a painting is primarily a flat surface covered with colours organized in a certain order. . .
The eight Pont-Aven artists, who showed in the Cafe Volpini exhibition, were Emile Bernard, Paul Gauguin, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, Schuffenecker, Louis Roy, Leon Fauche, and Georges Daniel de Monfried. Other artists, who became associated with the group, were Paul Serusier and Roderic O'Conor. Louis Roy (1862-1907) remains the most likely author of this painting. It is not strong enough to be by Gauguin, yet the two men's names are linked by an inscription on the back of the painting. We know that Roy maintained contact with Gauguin, printing woodblocks for Noa Noa in 1895 on Gauguin's second return from Tahiti. However, little is known of Roy's paintings, which are dispersed over many collections in Europe.
The Shepherdess remains a mystery painting. It was almost certainly painted in Brittany between 1886 and 1894. Gauguin worked in the area over several months, but the painting lacks the conviction we expect from Gauguin. The colour scheme is synthetist, and there is an intriguing 'phantom' figure in the lower right. However, in the absence of signatures and documentation, The Shepherdess remains attributable simply to the school that Gauguin founded, the Pont-Aven School.