(May 1, 1827 - July 5, 1906)
|As one of the primary academic painters of the nineteenth century, Jules
Breton evolved a painting style that combined a realist selection of
thematic material with an interest in creating figural types that reflected
the idealism of the classical traditions. His paintings were often regarded
as containing poetic references and his compositions suggest a timeless
world where the workers of the field symbolically were linked with literary
elegies that evoked their best qualities. Although his works were out of
favor for a long period of time, and his compositions were often used as
convenient examples of so-called "bad-painting" by supporters of the
modernist camp who panned any style whose goal was to portray the trials of
the human condition instead of being dedicated to destroying the definiing
characteristics of great traditional art. Breton's celebration of human
values of work, family, home and hearth did not fit into their nihilistic
paradigm, despite his poignant and poetic themes painted with a
compositional force and sophistication of technique that clearly places him
amongst the greatest artists of his time. Breton's paintings have returned
to public consciousness through recent exhibitions and an interest in
collecting his works by private patrons and museums. He is an artist who has
benefitted greatly from the long over due revisionist reappraisal of
nineteenth century academic painting.
Jules Breton was from a rural region in the north western part of France. He was born (May 1, 1827) and spent his youth in Courrières, a small village in the Pas-de-Calais; he died in Paris on July 5, 1906. His father, Marie-Louis Breton worked for a wealthy landowner whose land he supervised. After the death of his mother, when Jules was 4, he was brought up by his father. Others in the family, who lived in the same house, and had a deep influence on the young artist's upbringing, were his maternal grandmother and especially his uncle Boniface Breton. All instilled in the young man a respect for tradition, a love of the land and, especially, for his native region, which remained central to his art throughout his whole life providing the artist with many scenes for his Salon compositions.
He received his first artistic training not far from Courrières at the College St. Bertin near St. Omer. Later (1842) he met the painter Félix de Vigne (1806-1862) who was impressed by his youthful talent and persuaded his family to let him study art. In 1843, Breton left for Ghent (Belgium) where he continued to study art at the Academy of Fine Arts with de Vigne, and an other teacher from the school, the painter Hendrik Van der Haert (1790-1846). Sometime later (1846), Breton moved to Antwerp where he took lessons with Baron Gustaf Wappers; he also spent much of his time copying the works of Flemish masters. Trained as an academic artist, Breton was well aware of other artistic tendencies such as the role of genre painting. In 1847, Breton finally left for Paris where he hoped to perfect his artistic training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Once there he studied in the atelier of the genre painter Michel-Martin Drolling (1786- 1851). He also met, and became friends, with several of the Realist painters (François Bonvin, 1817-1887 and Gustave Brion, 1824-1877) and his early entries at the Salon reflected not only their influence, but also his concerns for the poor brought to the fore by the events of the 1848 Revolution. His paintings Misery and Despair (1848) shown at the Salon of 1849, and Hunger (1850) shown at the Salon of 1850-51, are representative of Breton's state of mind at the time and of his artistic preoccupations. Both paintings were destroyed. After Hunger was successfully shown in Brussels and Ghent, Breton was encouraged to move to Belgium where he met his future wife Elodie. Elodie, who became one of Breton's favorite models, was the daughter of Félix de Vigne, his early teacher; they were married in 1858. Breton returned to France in 1852. In 1853 he exhibited Return of the Reapers, the first of numerous rural peasant scenes based on his awareness of contemporary themes and influenced by the works of the Swiss painter Léopold Robert (1794-1835). Breton's interest in peasant imagery was, from then on, well-established and what he is best known for today. In 1854, Breton returned to the village of Courrières where he settled. Once there, he began The Gleaners (now in the Dublin National Gallery). This work was inspired by seasonal field labor and the plight of the less fortunate who were left to gather what remained in the field after the harvest. The Gleaners received a third class medal. This award, and the success of the painting among other artists and the public, launched Breton's career; his success continued throughout the Second Empire and beyond. He received commissions from the State and his works were purchased by the French Art Administration and sent to provincial museums. His painting Blessing of the Wheat, Artois (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), completed in 1857 and exhibited at the Salon of the same year, brought a second class medal and was purchased by M. de Nieuwerkerke for the Imperial Museums.
Many other paintings from the 1850s: Recall of the Gleaners (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) or Dedication of a Calvary (Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts), both shown at the 1859 Salon, continued to illustrate his tranquil vision of field labor influenced by the painters of the Italian Renaissance. In 1861, Breton received the Legion of Honor for such works as The Colza (1860), now in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. The 1860s saw a continuation of Breton's dedication to rural themes, but he moved away from concentrating only on peasant life around Courrières to include views of other French regions such as the south of France in Grape Harvest (Salon of 1864), or Brittany with The Great Pilgrimage, 1869. At the 1867 Universal Exhibition, where ten of his works were on view, Breton received a First Class Medal.
As Breton continued to exhibit throughout the 1870s and into the 1880s and 1890s, his reputation was assured during the first thirty years of the Third Republic. Later in his career Breton continued his illustrations of peasant life, but in a manner more attuned to Symbolism than to Realism. His poetic renderings of single peasant female figures in a landscape, posed against the setting sun, remained extremely popular especially among American collectors. For example, his Song of the Lark (1884) is a favorite at the Chicago Art Institute. Because his works were so popular Breton often had to produce copies of some of his best loved images. Breton was extremely popular in his own time, the numerous compositions he exhibited at the Salons and the fact that they were widely available as engravings, made him one of the best known painters of his period not only in his native country, but also in England and in the United States. He became a member of the Institut de France in 1886. Both his brother Emile (1831-1902), who was an architect by training, and his daughter Virginie (1859-1935), were also painters.
In addition to being a painter, Breton was also a recognized writer who published a volume of poems and several editions of prose related to his life as an artist or to the lives of other artists that he personally knew. Thus, in several ways, Jules Breton, at the time of his death in 1906, was highly regarded as a painter with a personal vision of rural life. His dedication to a section of the French countryside, his absorption of traditional methods of painting, and the creation of a popular style, helped make Jules Breton one of the primary transmiters of the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence.