PONT-AVEN, France -- Surprisingly, it was a group of American painters who, in the mid-19th century, founded a now-legendary art colony in this small tidal river port in Brittany, France's westernmost region. In its day, the area was the Gallic equivalent of Provincetown or Ogunquit and frequented by Paul Gauguin, among others. Few places this size have been painted so often or so well.
The Americans had been living and studying in Paris, but like most artists then as now, yearned for a place to work that was both inspirational and affordable. Pont-Aven had it all: hauntingly beautiful scenery, hospitable people , a mystic Celtic culture (Breton, the still-spoken indigenous language of Brittany, is related to Welsh), and it didn't cost much to live there.
The first American to discover Pont-Aven was Robert Wylie, a realistic, academic-style painter, who arrived in 1864. The recent invention of the paint tube made it possible for artists like Wylie to work in oils outside their studios, and the extension of the railroad from Paris made Brittany, once perhaps the most remote and exotic part of France, relatively easy to reach.
''Wylie meant to come just for the summer, but stayed 10 years, died in Pont-Aven, and is buried in the family tomb of his hotel keeper," says Caroline Boyle-Turner, a professor of art history at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and director of the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art. The school, which offers courses in studio art and art history, houses its mostly American students with local families, a practice that dates to the old art colony days.
Realizing that he was on to a good thing, Wylie, who had been born on the Isle of Man and grown up in Philadelphia, urged American friends in Paris to join him, and eight of them did. Later, they told English, Irish, Australian, and of course French friends about their discovery. Within a few years, artists were flocking to Pont-Aven from all over Europe. By the time Gauguin arrived in 1886 ''to paint pictures and live a frugal life," as he said, there was an international community of more than 100 artists working in and around the village.
It was Gauguin and his contemporaries and disciples such as Emile Bernard and Srusier who put Pont-Aven on the map and gave it an arguable claim to be the cradle of modern art. Rejecting Impressionism in favor of what they called ''synthesism," these artists used primitive-looking flat outlines and bold contrasting colors and espoused a new kind of realism.
''Paint what you see," Gauguin declared, ''not what's there."
Although Brittany, which juts out like a thumb from the rest of France, is a place you go to rather than pass through and so is not as touristed and developed as other French coastal regions, a lot has changed since the heyday of the Pont-Aven art colony.
The Breton folk costumes that the artists loved to depict -- elaborate lace headdresses for women and embroidered jackets and heavy wooden clogs for men, a costume Gauguin adopted -- are now seen only on special occasions. There is much less religious fervor and fewer elaborate processions and intensely devout public observances of saints days, once popular subjects for artists.
The Breton language is still heard but is no longer the common speech of the region. One of the original attractions of Pont-Aven for visiting artists was that, because it was a trading port, many of the people spoke French, not the case in other places in Brittany at the time.
The rugged landscape remains, however, as do many old painted churches, mills, and other landmarks. A frequent excursion for members of the Pont-Aven colony, and one popular with visitors today, is to walk over the old stone bridge that gives the town its name and follow the path along the Aven River to the Bois d'Amour, ''Lovers Wood," still a favorite locale for romantic strolls.
It was in the Bois d'Amour, under a canopy of chestnut and beech trees, that Gauguin gave Srusier a famous lesson, urging him to use undiluted colors right from the tube, the brightest greens and the most brilliant blues and reds, to represent shades of color in nature. This was the basis of the style Gauguin was later to perfect in Tahiti.
The path along the Aven continues on to the 16th-century Tremalo Chapel with its crucifix of a gaunt and tortured Christ, the inspiration for ''The Yellow Christ," one of Gauguin's most powerful paintings.
Gaugin made five visits to Pont-Aven between 1886 and 1894, when he left for Tahiti. A hard-drinking and uninhibited brawler (he died at 54 from the effects of syphilis), he usually stayed at Pension Gloanec on what is now Place Gauguin. The building still stands, but is no longer a boarding house.
''My office is in what used to be Gauguin's bedroom, " says Boyle-Turner. ''If the walls could talk, I probably wouldn't want to listen."
Only one old mill, now occupied by a crperie, survives of the more than a dozen that thrived here, and the former cargo port is a busy yacht harbor today. The center of town, though, looks much as it did in Gauguin's day, although most of the buildings on the main street contain tourist shops or art galleries. With a population of only about 2,500, Pont-Aven has more than 60 galleries.
Pont-Aven went into decline as an art center after World War I and only began to revive in the 1980s. In 1986, to mark the centennial of Gauguin's arrival, the town opened an art museum dedicated to the Pont-Aven school of painters. There are not many examples of Gauguin's work on view, unfortunately, since most of his best paintings are in museums or private collections outside France. However, there is a good selection of paintings, sketches, and prints by other notable artists of the school, such as Bernard and Srusier, and also the Americans Charles Way, Earl Shinn, and Wylie; the Pole Wladyslaw Slewinski, the Dutchman Jacob Meyer de Haan, and Irish-born Roderick O'Conor.
By 1889, so many artists had congregated in Pont-Aven that to get some elbow room Gauguin and six others moved to the seaside village of Le Pouldu, about 8 miles away. They lodged at an inn called La Buvette de la Plage, run by a strong-willed but motherly woman named Marie Henry.
Gauguin and company shared the inn's small bar and dining room with local laborers, men who harvested seaweed for a living, and often paid for their lodging, food, and drink with paintings, drawings, sculptures, and ceramics. Over about three years, the walls, ceiling, paneling, and windows of the dining room were covered with paintings and decorated with wood carvings by Gauguin, Srusier, Meyer de Haan (who fathered a child with Henry), and others.
The inn was eventually sold, Madame Henry took many paintings, and the dining room was redecorated. In 1924, two American artists discovered the wall paintings, which had been covered with seven layers of wallpaper, and bought the walls to preserve them.
In 1989, to commemorate the centennial of Gauguin's move to Le Pouldu, Marie Henry's inn was carefully reconstructed as a museum -- painted dining room and all -- in an identical building next to the original pension, now a cafe. Original paintings include one of a white goose by Gauguin.
Even though it's a re-creation, Maison Marie-Henry wonderfully evokes its era and unique history. In fact, a visitor feels that a paint-spattered Gauguin may lurch up to the bar at any moment, demanding a shot of absinthe.
Gauguin never forgot Brittany, where he went from being a gifted artist to a great one. In 1898, when he was living in a grass hut in tropical Tahiti, he painted from memory a view of a snowy Pont-Aven under a moody winter sky. Adieu, it seems to say.
William A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.