Artist biography

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Jules Breton studied initially under Félix de Vigne, whose daughter he married in 1858. He later studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent and went on to work at Drölling’s studio in Paris and joined the École des Beaux-Arts under the direction of Horace Vernet and Ingres in 1847. Breton had originally decided to specialise in genre painting, as his first submissions to the Salons of 1849 and 1850 show, but these were not very well received and the following year he began to concentrate exclusively on landscapes. In 1854, he moved back to Courrières and between 1862 and 1866 made several visits to south-west France, the south of France, and Italy. Between 1868 and 1890, he spent many months each year at Douarnenez in Brittany. Breton was decorated with the Légion d’Honneur and the Order of Léopold of Belgium. In 1867, he was made an officier of the Légion d’Honneur and was promoted to commandeur in 1885. In 1866, he was made a member of the Institut de France. He was a jury member at the Expositions Universelle of 1889 and 1900.

Among Breton’s most remarkable works, outside of those held in museums and galleries, are Rapeseed (purchased by the Duke of Morny), End of the Day (held in the Prince Napoléon collection), Turkey Girl, and Wild Lilies. Breton has rightly been described as a Realist tempered by a poet. He did not share the energetic technique of Bastien Lepage, nor his sense of truth. Breton’s Realism stopped at his choice of subject, his interpretation always being tinged with a certain idealistic charm. However, he did not falsify nature; he simply highlighted its happier side. His technique was Classical, very studied and impeccably precise, and his use of colour, though perhaps a little uninspired in certain works, was nevertheless always carefully chosen and accurate.

Breton was a regular exhibitor at Salons from 1849 and also exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle. In 1853, he had his first success at the Salon with Harvesters’ Return; in 1855, he was awarded a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle; in 1857, he received a silver medal at the Salon for Blessing of the Corn; at the Salon of 1859, his Calling in the Gleaners won him a gold medal; in 1867, he received a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle; and, in 1872, he was awarded a medal of honour at the Salon for Fountain and Young Girl Guarding Her Cows. His Salon exhibits were increasingly admired and were regularly purchased by the state and by collectors. Wisely, Breton did not let this rapid success go to his head but applied himself to perfecting his technique. He also took part in many foreign exhibitions.

In 2003, his work featured in the group exhibition Brittany, Land of Painters (Bretagne: Terre des Peintres) held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Vannes. During the 1980s, a number of exhibitions paid tribute to his work, including The French Realist Tradition, Painting and Drawing, 1830–1890 at the Cleveland Museum (1980), and Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha (1982). In 2002, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Arras, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper, and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin hosted a touring exhibition of over 120 paintings, drawings, and sketches by Breton entitled Jules Breton: Painter of Peasant Life (Jules Breton: La Chanson des Blés).

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Amsterdam (Van Gogh Mus.): Young Peasant Girl with a Hoe (1882)
Antwerp: Portrait of the Artist
Arras (MBA): Poverty and Despair; Repose; Blessing of the Corn (oil on canvas); Woman Gleaner (1877, oil on canvas)
Bagnères-de-Bigorre: Stream
Boulogne-sur-Mer: Ripening Corn; Gleaners at Cernay
Boston (MFA): Woman with a Taper (1873)
Calais: Peasant Woman
Chicago (AI): Lark Song (1884, oil on canvas)
Detroit (Institute of Art): Fire in a Haystack (1856)
Lille: Farmyard at Souchez (Pas-de-Calais); Secret; Calvaire Plantation (1858)
New York: Procession in Brittany (1869)
New York (Brooklyn Mus.): Peasant Woman Holding a Taper (c. 1869); The End of the Work Day (1886–1887)
New York (Metropolitan MA): Peasant Girl Knitting (1873)
Paris (Mus. D’Orsay): Calling in the Gleaners (1859, oil on canvas); Woman Gleaner
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): Woman with Sunshade (1872, oil on canvas); Woman Spinning on the Rocks at Douarnenez (1870, oil on canvas)
Philadelphia (MA): The Feast of Saint John (c. 1875)
Quimper (MBA): Father Lelgouache, Verger of Kerlaz (1868, oil on canvas); Le Grand Pardon (1868, oil on canvas)
St Louis (GA, Washington University): Le Lundi (1858, oil on canvas/Masonite)
The Hague: Harvest