As one of the primary painters of peasant themes in the nineteenth century and an artist strongly influenced by his own native traditions from northern France, Jules Breton had renowned fame by the time of his death 1906. Regarded as a primarly as painter of daily life with an inherent and substantial understanding of the old masters like Raphael, Breton created a highly idealized version of common people.
By 1857, Breton had tapped into the collective consciousness of the time. His move back to Courrieres had come at the exact moment the public was yearning to return to a simpler time. 1857 is the date given to our painting. Breton often sketched and painted small oil studies as a preparation for larger more ambitious works. It would be a logical assumption that this piece was intended as a sketch or a thumbnail of an idea he had at the time and was planning to return to it at a later date. A motif which exists in several of Breton's larger more mature works is the grouping of three women almost centrally located in the compositions walking toward the viewer. In two of them Return from the Fields and A Day in the Fields the central woman has her arms around the women on either side of her, which is very similar to the women in this small oil sketch. Just as the women appear in later paintings the small boy blowing on his instrument is rendered in later works as well. We see the boy walking in the same position in two separate versions of Departure for the Fields, only his clothes are painted differently. It is known that Breton, like many of his contemporaries used photographs as a reference when painting. This piece could have been done on the spot in the fields or back in his studio with the help of photographs. The subject matter of singing in the fields is also approached in the Song of the Lark. The French ruralist work portrays a woman working in a field who is pleasantly charmed away from her work by the song of a lark which is seen in the distance. The simple, yet sincere, mood of the painting is one of its most unique qualities this painting is of course seen as one of Breton's most romantic depictions of a worker in the fields. There are many sketches and engravings of this subject. The woman in the Song of the Lark could have come from the woman we see behind the three centrally located women in Women Singing, End of the Day. Her pose is only slightly different than the woman in our painting. In all of Breton's depictions of workers out in the field our Women Singing, End of the Day and the Song of the Lark are the only ones where the subjects have their mouths open. The Song of the Lark wouldn't be painted until 1884 but we can see the early premonition of it by looking at the woman standing by herself separate from the other characters in our painting.
The Song of the Lark had earned a place in what might be termed the American 'populist canon', a group of artworks that had the greatest public recognition among people without a formal education in the arts. The populist canon consisted of those works, many of them sentimental in subject matter, which had the greatest appeal across the country. The Song of the Lark became a mainstay of the populist canon, partly because of its widespread reproduction. The painting was reproduced in poster form and placed in classrooms throughout the United States. Hundreds of thousands of reproductions of the painting made it a veritable icon across the United States. It was also referenced in two well known American 'coming of age' novels. The first reference came in Wlla Cather's popular book of 1915, also titled The Song of the Lark. In the novel, the protagonist, Thea Kronberg, is a determined young woman who leaves life on the farm to make her way as a vocal artist in the city of Chicago. An important episode in the novel occurs when Thea visits the Chicago Art Institute where she returns to the painting that most inspires her:
"The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look on the girl's face—well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there. She told herself that the picture was 'right"'"
The passage is significant for the way in which it describes Thea's ability to identify with the subject of the The Song of the Lark, an identification that many Americans of similar background shared with her.
A second literary reference to the painting occurred in Tom Wolfe's semi-autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). In that story, the protagonist Eugene Gant, along with his classmates, is assigned to write a grammar-school paper on the painting ( a convincing detail, considering how reproductions of the painting were ubiquitous in American classrooms). Eugene's essay becomes the catalyst for his rapid accent among the elite in American society. It is noticed by the administrators of a private school for boys, and from there Eugene attains an Ivy League education and later a career as an author. As was the case with Cather's novel, the Song of the Lark signifies the aspirations of the talented and determined, yet poor and naïve, denizens of American society.
Cather and Wolfe both suggest that the Song of the Lark could function to instruct and absorb less well-educated children and country people in the dominant culture of the bourgeois city. While some people, like Eugene, will succeed in overcoming their 'disadvantaged' roots, others, in Cather's heroine find that things of beauty are infinitely joy-giving and immortally young. These literary references are not simply incidental but rather they recognize the significance which the Song of the Lark had in American popular culture.
On July 9, 1934, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled the Song of the Lark, at a ceremony held at the Art Institute of Chicago. The occasion was the announcement that the Song ofthe Lark had been voted 'America's best Loved Picture'. This declaration was made on the basis of a contest held by the Chicago Daily News, in connection with the museum.
Despite his beginning inclinations towards nature and the peasants, which would later come to fruition, Breton was first seized by a desire to create a more poignantly distressing sort of imagery. He debuted at the 1849 Salon with Misère et Désespoir (Want and Despair), a socially conscious work that clearly spoke to his experiences and understanding of the 1848-1849 conflict. In 1851 he exhibited Faim (Hunger), also a subject which highlighted the social woes of the period. Thus Breton began his artistic career with a violent sort of Realism that did not shy away from depicting the depressed state of the lower classes in Paris. Later in his career Breton would choose to comment on social and economic issues through less overt references.
By 1852 he had begun painting landscapes in the Parisian suburbs and altered his style so that it would be more suitable to Salon entries and potential patrons. His health grew more and more fragile and along with the death of his father he returned to Courrières to regain his strength. This move back to his birthplace would not only help him through his sickness, but would provide a new sense of inspiration for his work as he was immersed in nature and the rustic life of its inhabitants. One of his most important works came out of this period, Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners), painted in 1854, which depicted peasants "gleaning" after the harvest. The principal figure in this work was his fiancée Élodie de Vigne, the daughter of his former art teacher Félix de Vigne - they were engaged April 29th, 1858. This work was exhibited at the 1855 Salon and earned him a third-class medal. This was the first time that his work was truly noticed. Breton depicted his peasants and harvesters with a sense of dignity and grace that betrayed the difficulty of the work at hand.
The subject matter of Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners) had important social and economic implications that may have earned it more respect and praise. More so than simply depicting the life of the peasantry in rural France, the act of gleaning became a symbol of France and its respected and idealized rural tradition that many were concerned was being lost in the move to industrialization. Additionally, as noted in Gabriel P. Weisberg's The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900 (The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980, pg. 82), the rights of the gleaners were in question in 1854. A practice dating back several centuries, some believed that gleaning encouraged stealing while others felt that to deny women, the poor, and the handicapped the opportunity to glean was an infringement of rights. Thus, a lofty debate over the position of the gleaner was taking place at this time. While his two previous works mentioned were overt references to the social ills of the nation, Les Glaneuses focused more on a symbolic re-appreciation of traditional French values. As Breton's work continued to depict peasant life and traditions, the working of the land and the glorification of those who worked it, the encroaching industrialization threatened to overtake these traditions. The peasants held steadfast in their maintenance of their time honored tradition and thus came to be seen as the base of stability in a world of constant change.
Breton found continued success and praise with his depictions of the peasantry. However, his poor health and continued anxiety caused by the Parisian art scene made him return to Courrières on several occasions. He exhibited Bénédictions des Blés (The Blessing of the Wheat) at the Salon of 1857 which earned him a second-class medal and was also purchased by Napoleon III on behalf of the state. He returned to Paris in 1859 and shared a studio at 53 rue Notre Dame des Champs with a friend, Charles-Joseph-Ernest Delalleau, an architect whom he had also known at St. Bertin and at college in Douai. Perhaps his most important work of the 1850s, Le Rappel des Glaneuses (The Recall of the Gleaners) was awarded a first class medal at the 1859 Salon and was also sent to international exhibitions in Vienna and Luxembourg. This work was inspired by his sojourn in Marlotte on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. In 1861 he was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (promoted to Officer in 1867).
While many immediately recall Breton's peasant figures when they think of the artist, this was not his only interest, nor did his interests remain unchanged throughout his artistic career. He wrote that:
"The too prolonged sight of the same objects in the end dulls the emotions. The mind constantly revolving in the same circle of observation loses its elasticity. The peasant no longer inspired me as formerly, and my imagination exhausted itself in chimerical dreams."
Feeling without inspiration, he was invited by Count Duchâtel, one of Louis Phillipe's former ministers, in 1862 to the Médoc region in southern France to paint a vintage at Château Lagrange (Les Vendages à Château-Lagrange - The Vintage at Chateau Lagrange was later exhibited at the 1864 Salon, a painting now in the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska). He had the opportunity to travel through southern France and found Arles a most remarkable city. Of this experience Breton wrote, "What remained in my mind of all the keen emotions awakened in it by the scenery of the South? Nothing which I could profit by, as far as my art was concerned, but enough to make me admire anew, and more enthusiastically than before, the simple sylvan beauty that surrounded me." From 1865 on, he also visited Brittany on several occasions, each time focusing his pictorial interest on the people working the land and local traditions such as the frequent religious pilgrimages. Works inspired by his time in Brittany—he often returned to Douarnenez during this period—form a large and important portion of Breton's oeuvre. In 1867 he exhibited ten paintings at the Exposition Universelle and was given a first-place medal. Although he suggests that he was losing interest in depictions of peasant life, his work had come to be recognized as an idealized version of it, which appealed to the Second Empire public and government officials who wanted to reference the tranquil nature of these works which shifted attention away from the real issues that Paris faced. Increasingly, many of his paintings have overt and covert references to work from the Italian Renaissance, especially imagery by Raphael.
Breton's work in the 1870s should be viewed against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian war. In Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition (New York: The Arts Publisher, Inc: 1982, pg. 16), Hollister Sturges highlights the changes in Breton's work in response to these influences:
The rising importance of naturalism in French painting and the nationalist sentiment following the Franco-Prussian War were the most important external forces influencing the development of Breton's work in the 1870s. While he continued to interpret rustic life with the blend of poetic sentiment, elevated style, and realistic observation that earned him so much acclaim during the Second Empire, two new, even opposing, tendencies can be seen in his work of this decade. He made his classicized peasants more monumental than those in even his most ambitious earlier works, and he painted them in a more naturalistic, vigorous, less controlled fashion.
While his style may have changed, his pictures still commanded respect and in 1872 he was given the Medal of Honor at the Salon. Breton continued exhibiting at the Salons and was promoted from Officer to Commander of the Légion d'Honneur in 1885, and in 1886 he was elected as a member of the Insitut de France. In 1889-1900 he was also a jury member of the Salon. Towards the end of his career his works carried a more symbolic tone to them, often focusing on a single figure within the composition, such as Le Chant de l'Alouette (The Song of the Lark) of 1884. This shift to attempt life-size figures may also have been influenced by his 1870 trip to Italy where he viewed the Sistine chapel and Giotto's frescoes. After almost fifty years of consistent work, Breton's images and execution remained fairly true to his original conception. His paintings also became avidly collected in the United States where his imagery reinforced a similar interest in rural life.
Private Collection, Connecticut, since 2005
Wylie Associates, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1990
Dépot at the Ghent Museum, 1904-1939
De Vigne Family, Ghent