The May tree

The May tree

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Title: The May tree.

Author : BAFCOP Alexis (-)

Creation date : 1840

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 195 - Width 167

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 01.2.1 / Inv: MNATP 987.24.1

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Alexis Bafcop (1804-1895) exhibited at the Salon from 1831 to 1840 portraits and genre paintings with an "ethnographic" subject. The presence of the tricolor flag, adopted as an official emblem by the July Monarchy, raises the question of the relationship between the cyclical time of the agrarian rite and the time of history. The choice to locate the stage in Brittany also takes on a particular significance.

Image Analysis

The practice of collective May, attested in many regions of France as early as the eleventh century, consisted of fetching a tree in the forest and planting it in the village square on the night of April 30 to May 1. Decorated with ribbons, the tree was paraded in procession by the young people of the village. The custom was linked to youth associations which, like organized groups, had a role of primary importance in social life. This practice should not be confused with the custom of individual corn planted in front of the door of young girls to be married. The scene is located in Brittany, a region where the custom, according to Arnold Van Gennep, seems to have been more marginal: “In the country of Baud only, around 1840.” The composition of the painting reproduces older models (such as an anonymous print entitled Spring, kept at the BNF) which have the same layout (musician on the left, tilted tree, building on the right). As for the representation of Breton costumes, it owes more to the engravings of Olivier Perrin or to the paintings of Eugène Leleux than to direct observation. The moment represented is that of the actual plantation, the tree being hauled and supported by young people under the gaze of the village community. The presence, in the left part of the canvas, of a fiddler announces the coming festival; that of the old man in the foreground can be surprising in the context of a party linked to youth.


Since the Celtic Academy, instituted by the 1st Empire, Brittany has become the land of predilection for the search for a mythical past. The 1840s saw a revival of Celtomania and an increased interest in Breton subjects. To represent the tricolor flag in a festival located in this region which the folklorist imagination regards as the most traditional represents a kind of manifesto: we consider as a fact the recognition, even in the most “typical” regions, of this emblem, and hence national values.

  • Brittany
  • tricolour flag
  • folklore
  • rural life


Nicole BELMONT "The lovely month of May", in The story n ° 1, May 1978.Catherine BERTO, “The invention of Brittany, social genesis of a stereotype”, in Social Sciences Research Proceedings , Paris, Ed. Of Minuit, 1980. Marie-France GUEUSQUIN The month of the dragons Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1981.Arnold VAN GENNEP Contemporary French folklore manual , tome I, vol.4, “Cérémonies periodic cycliques” Paris, Picard, 1949 reed. Robert Laffont coll. "Books", 1998.André VARAGNAC "Les but d 'past", in Our earth 13271

To cite this article

Frédéric MAGUET, "The May Tree"

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