Jules Breton produced some of the most famous French paintings of the nineteenth century. As a naturalist painter, Breton loved depicting the French countryside and rural work.
In this brief introduction to Jules Breton, we explore some of his most celebrated paintings as well as Breton’s fascinating private life.
Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton (born 1 May 1827) grew up in Courrières, a small village in northern France. His family wasn’t wealthy, but they were comfortable.
Breton’s father, Marie-Louis Breton, managed land for a local upper-class family. Sadly, Breton’s mother died when he was just four years old. Nevertheless, the entire family helped raise the children, including Breton’s grandmother and his uncle, who lived in the same house.
The family shared a love for traditional country life and respect for the land as well as their beautiful region of Pas-de-Calais. This focus stayed with Breton his whole life, supplying inspiration for his many portraits and landscapes.
Studying fine art was unusual for rural workers. Nonetheless, Breton managed to gain an artistic education while enrolled at the nearby College St. Bertin. While at this establishment, Breton met Félix De Vigne (a well-known Belgian history painter). De Vigne helped Breton persuade his family he should study art as a career.
Their pleas were successful, and Breton traveled to Ghent in Belgium in 1843. He enrolled at the prestigious Academy of Fine Art.
After studying at the academy for three years, Breton moved to Antwerp. He worked under the painter Egide Charles Gustave Wappers, mostly copying paintings from the great Flemish masters.
By 1847, Breton wanted to broaden his artistic horizons. He consequently moved to Paris, where he learned from the French neoclassical painter Michel Martin Drolling. While in Paris, Breton met several Realist artists, notably Gustave Brion and Francois Bonvin.
French Realist styles profoundly influenced Breton’s early painting.
He sent paintings to the Paris Salon in 1848, representing historical subjects. The highly traditional and discerning Paris Salon displayed Breton’s Misery and Despair painting in 1849. They followed this with his depiction of Hunger in 1850-51. Sadly, both artworks no longer exist.
In the early 1850s, Breton returned to Belgium, where he met Elodie. The daughter of Breton’s earlier teacher Félix De Vigne, they soon began a romantic relationship. The pair wed in 1858.
By 1852, Breton returned to France. He soon abandoned historical painting for natural scenes, however. Breton mainly depicted memories from his youth in Courrières, with many images of working agricultural life. The Reapers (c.1860) perfectly represents these pastoral scenes.
By 1854, Breton’s longing for home grew more robust. He returned to Courrières, settling in the village to paint and enjoy a simpler life.
Breton soon commenced work on The Last Gleanings, a monumental painting inspired by field workers and peasant life in France. The title stems from the necessity of “gleaning” or picking-through field scraps after the harvest.
The painting received a warm critical reception in Paris, earning a Third Class Medal from the Salon. This accolade launched Breton’s artistic career. Other similar works (also depicting rural, peasant life) included Les Amies, Setting out for the Fields.
After this success, the French state commissioned several artworks from Breton. The French Art Administration also bought his paintings, often sent straight to museums around the country.
Breton continued painting and exhibiting his art throughout the 1870s and 1880s. Today, he is best known for his representations of female figures set against rural landscapes.
His color palette is often muted, reflecting Breton’s early training in the Flemish tradition. Breton’s figures often appear against a setting or rising sun, reflecting the early starts and late finishes of farm works. The End of the Working Day (1886) embodies this approach.
In the 1890s, Breton’s reputation grew even further. The English and American art public particularly adored his art. As a result of this immense popularity, Breton often created several copies of his best-loved works. He also produced engravings, widely available at his many Salon shows.
Further recognition came in 1889 when the French government made Breton a Commander of the Legion of Honor. Finally, in 1899, the British Royal Academy (based in London) appointed Breton an honorary foreign member.
Virginie Demont-Breton was Jules Breton’s daughter. She was also a successful painter in her own right.
Her work reflects inspiration from Breton (often featuring rural, lower-class sitters). Virginie pursued her unique artistic interests, often painting “mother and child” compositions and windswept seascapes. Her father did paint some similar artworks, notably Young Mother Nursing her Child.
Her father encouraged her artistic career from a young age, introducing Virginie to many influential painters. These introductions included individuals such as Rosa Bonheur; an artist celebrated for her Realistic animal paintings.
Virginie followed in her father’s footsteps by age twenty and exhibited at the Paris Salon.
Jules Breton died in Paris on 5 July 1906.
He never veered away from rural and rustic paintings, producing some of the most loved and sympathetic representations of the French working classes.
Breton spent most of his life steeped in the French countryside. As well as pastoral work, he also painted scenes of religious devotion, festivals, and rest.
Today, Jules Breton The Song of the Lark is one of the most famous French paintings. It rocketed to public fame when Eleanor Roosevelt (the American First Lady) unveiled the artwork as America’s “most beloved” painting in 1934.
Roosevelt also described it as her favorite, adding to its popular appeal. The image (painted 1884) depicts a single female subject walking serenely along an arable field. Scythe in hand, her work is only just beginning as the red sun rises in the background.
If you love the rustic beauty of Jules Breton’s famous French paintings, explore our extensive collection of replica art. With our stunning hand-painted oil on canvas artworks, you can bring the beautiful French countryside into your home.
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