On his return from Martinique, Gauguin rejoined the artist's colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany. He once again became its leading figure, proclaiming that a picture should reflect a deeper reality than the mere representation of its subject-matter. He believed that existence depended on some hidden equilibrium which art should reflect by depicting identifiable objects within the context of a schematic and thought-provoking pattern.
He studied Celtic art and was fascinated by ancient depictions of local Breton gods as abstract ornamental figures. He believed that some deeper reality could be achieved by exploiting the sensations inspired by various symbols.
During the spring and summer of 1888 he worked alongside Emile Bernard. Both painters used heavy outlines in the hope of creating profoundly harmonious patterns. This new method of dividing a canvass into distinct sections became known as cloisonnism ("compartmentalisation").
In "Jacob Wrestling with an Angel", Gauguin portrays pious Breton women in national costume reflecting on the sermon which they have just attended. Two supernatural figures, Jacob and the Angel, wrestle in the background. Jacob is desperate to convince the Angel that he has repented of his sins and will not let the Angel depart until he has succeeded in doing so.
Gauguin thus combines a biblical scene with a depiction of everyday life. He uses the tree in the foreground as a device to separate the peasant women from the wrestling match which mirrors their own hidden torments. He creates a supernatural atmosphere through the use of heavily-outlined areas of flat and harshly contrasting colours. He also employs a sharp perspective, emphasising the foreground in order to draw the viewer's gaze towards the struggle of conscience taking place in the background.
Image source: The Yorck Project