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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jules Breton

Vintage at the Chateau Lagrange, 1864, Jules Breton
Jules Breton Self-portrait, 1883
For more than two hundred years, the French have been in love with the countryside. Even as they embraced Classicism, Romanticism, Realism (and numerous other "isms") in the march of art history across their sizable hunk of European real estate, whenever life in their cities became a little too intense, the French fled back to some ancestral home (real or imagined) in the country. Long before the Impressionists "discovered" the French landscape, the Barbizon school painted in the Forests of Fontainebleau. Even before that, the Realists proclaimed the agrarian virtues of the lives of country peasants. The first name to come to mind when we think of such art is that of Jean-Francois Millet and his Gleaners (1857). Though thirteen years younger than Millet, a name that should also come to mind is that of Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton.
The Storm, 1852-53, Jules Breton, probably his earliest surviving work.
Jules Breton (not to be confused with the poet, writer, and founder of the Surrealist movement, Andre Breton) was born in the village of Courrieres located in the far northern region of France in 1827. Raised by his father, an estate overseer, after his mother died when he was four, it's little wonder Breton all his life painted the French countryside and its inhabitants, arguably with even greater insight and instinctive feel for its natural beauty than did Millet. Though Millet is considered one of the founders of the Barbizon School, he was always first and foremost interested in the inhabitants of the land more than the landscape in which they lived. And though Breton's paintings were often heavily peopled with noble peasants (mostly young women and girls), always there was great feeling and attention to the beauty of the land. The man loved his sunsets.
Fire in the Haystack, 1856, Jules Breton--combining his two major
subjects, history and peasants.
Young Jules Breton began studying art in his mid-teens, first from local artists (as was often the case in that day). Then he moved on to Ghent, then Antwerp, and finally, the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, all before he turned twenty. His first works were history paintings (the top of the heap insofar as painted images were concerned at the time). In 1849, he managed to get a painting (Misery and Despair) into the Salon, a sure indication that he was a rising young artist. Good fortune struck again in 1850 with the acceptance of a second work (Hunger). Both paintings have since disappeared, and the suspicion is that Breton himself may have destroyed them.
Return of the Reapers, 1852, Jules Breton
After a brief sojourn to Belgium to display his work, and where he met his future wife, Breton returned to France. Though having had some success as a history painter, his heart was not in it. He decided he was not cut out for such high art. Instead he returned to his childhood roots, that which he knew and loved best. In 1852 he painted Return of the Reapers (above), marking a new direction in his career. Then, in 1854, he left Paris, returning to his place of birth. There he painted The Gleaners (below), which actually predates Millet's iconic The Gleaners by some five years.
The Gleaners, 1854, Jules Breton. Titled the same as Millet's later painting,
the two look nothing alike, although they might both be termed Realism. Breton's
version appears more lively, almost joyful, as compared to Millet's highly spiritual work.
Even as Millet struggled for recognition with his somewhat more "gritty" Realism depicting peasant life, Breton's career prospered during the next forty years bringing him a considerable degree of fame and acceptance both in Europe and America, where his work struck a chord in its romanticized depiction of farm life. Millet died in 1875. Breton lived to be 79, dying in 1906. Subjectively, it would be easy to confuse their work. Their differences come down to style, that of Millet's harsh Realism and Breton's somewhat romantic Realism. Breton was an Academic painter. Millet was not. In fact, he fought with the French academic establishment much of his life. Also, Breton was more a devotee of the French landscape than Millet. Vincent van Gogh was influenced by them both. He admired, and even copied, paintings by Millet, yet it's said he liked Breton's work so much he once walked more than eighty miles to meet the man, then failed to do so. He turned back, intimidated by the high walls surrounding Breton's estate.

The Shepherd, 1905, Jules Breton, one of his final paintings. Though always
depicting the idyllic life of French peasants, the idyllic French landscape
seems frequently to be his main emphasis.



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