Of all the Breton artists of the first half of the 20th century, Mathurin Méheut is certainly the most prolific, the most versatile and the most popular, however, his career was entirely Paris based.
After a childhood in Lamballe and studies in Rennes, Méheut settled permanently in Paris in 1902. Even during the occupation, when he taught at the School of Fine Art in Rennes, he only lived there infrequently. But the Parisian by adoption that he became frequently travelled back to Brittany: whenever commissions required him to renew his portfolio and every year during the summer vacation. His attachment to Brittany was very strong.
The areas of Upper Brittany frequented by Méheut are fewer and more confined. He returned occasionally to Lamballe and le Penthièvre region. He visited Dinan to see Yvonne Jean-Haffen and also St Malo where he investigated les terre-neuvas (the French cod fishers who fished off Newfoundland). He went to Tréguier where his faithfulness to Saint Yves attracted him to the religious festival. He also visited La Brière and the area of the paludiers (salt workers) on the Guérandaise peninsula.
He was much more familiar with Lower Brittany which was richer in colour. In the summer he never tired of touring the whole of the Finistère, from Pont-l'Abbé to Roscoff and from Folgoët to Faouët. It all started in Roscoff. He stayed there between 1910 and 1912 for a period of research at the marine laboratory of the Biology Centre. The drawings which he collected together on the flora and fauna of the channel region would enable him to illustrate a two-volume book in 1913: Étude de la Mer, faune et flore de la Manche et de l'Océan. He would draw a great deal of his inspiration from this for engravings, paintings, sculpture, illustrations and decoration.
In Roscoff he also discovered rural Brittany, the land of the peasants, the goémoniers (collectors of sea weed (in English wrackers)) and sailors. More than nature, it was the work of men and women that would influence the direction of his career. After the war, a long stay in Penmarc'h plunged him into the unique region of the bigoudène, the area around Pont-l'Abbé, which he attempted to capture in, amongst others, a beautiful series of engravings in 1921.
Later, his favourites places are Quimper, Pont-l'Abbé or Douarnenez where he had good friends. In Quimper, his collaboration with the Henriot pottery produced the dinner services – service de la Mer and service de la galette (the pancake or crêpe) – which were such a success at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925. These were the first of a lengthy output. In Pont-l'Abbé his friendship with Marie-Anne Le Minor enabled him to integrate the world of the embroiderers.
In this part of Brittany, his choices favoured the inherent picturesque nature of a region barely touched by the modern world: fishermen at work, their houses, the craftsmen, their tools and their techniques. Fully aware that this civilisation was on the brink of disappearing, he made it his mission to capture on the spot the manner of daily life; he was particularly struck by the beauty and variety of local costumes. In order to observe them, the special occasions which he sought were the fairs and the markets, the religious festivals, especially those which brought together pilgrims of various regions. Le Folgoët, Locronan and Saint-Anne-de-la-Palud were places he frequently visited. There he could appreciate the development of traditional dress whilst being saddened by its gradual disappearance.
However, Méheut was not only, as sometimes described, a man of the past, nor someone harping nostalgically about bygone days. He was also capable of capturing images of the modern world which was being ushered in. He loved to immerse himself in the bustle of ports: Douarnenez, Camaret, Concarneau with their ship-yards and the development of industrial fishing. The final books which he illustrated along with other artists, Une porte de l'Europe, Nantes (1951) and Pêcheurs des quatre mers (1957) drew him into this modern age.
By Denise Delouche, art historian
Mathurin Méheut, Goémonière à la civière, pays bigouden, musée Mathurin Méheut