Jules Breton French, 1827-1906

Overview

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 tradition. 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 criticized 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 defining 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 benefited greatly from the long over due revisionist reappraisal of nineteenth century academic painting.

 

Financial difficulties after the death of his father, forced Breton back to Courrieres, the town in which he was born and live there with his family. It was soon after that move in 1853 he painted his first rural country scenes of his native region. In doing so he gave the simple peasants a place previously reserved for the gods and the powerful. It was these paintings that established his name. For Breton the workers in the fields were far from being a contentious image of rural poverty they had both picturesque and religious overtones. He wrote:

 

"Nothing could be more biblical than this human flock—the sunlight clinging to there rags, burning their necks, lighting up the ears of wheat, luminously outlining dark profiles, tracing on tawny golden earth flickering shadows shot with blue reflections of the zenith."

 

Throughout the 1840's and 1850's the image of the peasant and his or her place in a rural environment remained a point of contention not only in painting but also in literature and social surveys. Attempts to industrialize the economy, migration from the country to the city, a working-class uprising and the new found political importance of the peasant following the extension of the franchise ensured that the representation of rural life would inevitably excite some response. In short, rural imagery as a subject was clearly loaded with political connotations. Following the revolution, the image of the countryside as an uncomplicated playground for bourgeois fantasy, or as an abstract analogy for artistic retreat, was more difficult to sustain. Around the mid-1840's a new spectrum of responses to the countryside was gradually set into place. The peasant was either presented as a social anachronism or became the symbol of a wholesome and timeless moral order eroded by industrial progress. The peasant as a social anachronism was a relevant and useful image in the 1840's when industrialism was a novelty;  leaving the country and finding a place on the Jacob's Ladder of prosperity in the city was the common idea at the time. By the 1850's, too many peasants had followed this advice it seemed. By the end of the decade over half of Paris had been razed to accommodate the expanding population; long, straight boulevards and modern high-rise accommodation had been constructed. The city was no longer a symbol of unbounded progress; life in the countryside began to have a greater appeal and orderly visual representations of it were fêted by critics at the Salon. By 1889, the year of the centennial celebrations of the French Revolution, a year in which the French reviewed the cultural achievements of four revolutions, a restoration, three monarchies, two Empires, and two republics, rural imagery was much in demand, a sedative for wave after wave of political and social traumas over the past 100 years. 

Awards and Memberships

Chevalier de La Legion d' Honneur, 1871; Officier, 1867

Institut de France

Royal Academy of London

 

Exhibitions

Salon de Paris, 1848, 1855 (3rd Prize for The Gleaners), 1857 (2nd Prize), 1861 (First Prize), 1866 (medal), 1867 (medal), 1868 (medal), 1872 (Medal of Honor)

 

Museums and Public Collections

Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Scotland

Art Institute of Chicago

Brooklyn Museum, New York City    

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Chi-Mei Museum, Taiwan 

Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio

Dahesh Museum, New York City

Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan

Joslyn Art Museum, Nebraska

Louvre Museum, Paris

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City 

Musée d'Amiens

Musée d'Amsterdam

Musée d'Arras

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, France 

Musée de Bruxelles

Musée de Douai

Musée de La Haye

Musée de Londres

Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Musée de Valenciennes

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

Réunion des Musées Nationaux, France 

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Italy

Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota, Duluth

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Walters Art Museum, Maryland 

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