Art colonies were a feature of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Northern Europe, in which the age-old desire to escape the city for a simpler rural existence combined with a utopian belief that artists themselves could establish a better way of life than was available in the modern industrial society around them.Art colonies were a peaceful parallel to the rampant geopolitical colonialism in which imperial Britain, France, and Germany engaged. At Worpswede near Bremen, Pont-Aven and Concarneau on the Breton coast, Newlyn and St. Ives in Cornwall, Abramtsevo in Russia, and other locations far beyond the metropolitan cultural orbit, the pattern repeated itself. Groups of city-trained painters visited regularly or settled long term, sometimes using redundant industrial or agricultural buildings as studios and often painting en plein air. The colonists liked to participate in the host community and paint its distinctive moments—the evening return from the fields or fishing grounds, the locals in traditional dress.
By the 1880s, art had yet to catalyze the fairer society of which Gustave Courbet and his avant-garde contemporaries had dreamed 30 years earlier (see pp.118-119). Art colonies were alternative communities, in which artists could—in theory—enjoy professional camaraderie while living in harmony with people who remained uncorrupted by industrial modernity. The promise of making contact with a more vital, “primitive” way of life held a powerful appeal for self-styled outsiders such as Paul Gauguin, who made several visits to Brittany (opposite). In the fall of 1888 he joined Vincent van Gogh in a shortlived colony of two in the Provençal town of Arles. As so often in art-colonial history, the creative stimulus (their discussions, enthused Van Gogh, were “terribly electric”) was outweighed by what Gauguin euphemistically called their “incompatibility of temper.” In 1891 Gauguin left Europe for Tahiti, in search of an exotic Arcadia where he vainly hoped to find “happy inhabitants” enjoying “the sweetness of life.”
The ideal of an artistic community in which ideas and ambitions could be shared had an urban version too. In 1902, the fireman-sculptor Alfred Boucher set up a studio complex outside Paris known, from the building's distinctive shape, as La Ruche (The Hive). This collective model, in which individual artists lived and worked in close proximity, though not as members of a single atelier, repeatedly reestablished itself in low-rent city districts with vacant workspace, frequently to be followed by property developers arriving in the artists’ wake and putting studio space beyond the financial reach of the very people whose presence had made the place fashionable.