As one of the primary academic painters of the 19th century, Jules Breton evolved a painting style that combined figurative realism with the idealism of classical traditions.
Breton spent most of his career in the village of Courrières in northern France, immersed in the life and customs of the rural environment. When he was ten, Breton enrolled in a local school where he received his first drawing lessons, later studying in Belgium, where he learned the traditions of academic painting, historical genre and the heritage of northern European art. In 1847, ill health forced him to return to Courrières. After his recovery, Breton was sent to Paris to finish his artistic education, further absorbing the academic conventions of the day, while remaining open to the development of new aspects of contemporary realism. He was strongly influenced by the Barbizon tradition, as his sketches and preliminary studies for his large-scale Salon canvases reveal his ability to absorb and recast aspects of the Barbizon tradition.
By 1853, Breton was exhibiting canvases at the Paris Salon, with works based on his own observations of rural life in Courrières. During this period, Breton developed the plan for his first major Salon triumph, ”The Gleaners,” a painting that received a Third Class Medal at the 1855 Salon. This work was well received and carefully studied, influencing such painters as Jean-François Millet (1814 – 1875), who had already developed his own interest in the same theme. (A gleaner is someone who picks up, or gathers, grain left in the field by the harvesters.)
Each year at the Salon, Breton’s images of gleaners, harvesters and peasant women helped establish his reputation as the foremost painter of rural life. Along with several First Class Medals and, in 1872, the Medal of Honor, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur in 1861, and in 1867 he was promoted to Officer of the same order. Breton’s election to the Institut de France in 1886 solidified his status as one of the most respected painters of his day.
Throughout his career, which spanned nearly sixty years, Breton painted with an idealistic vision of the beauty and harmony of the peasant laborer working the land. Breton was respected by his peers for his intelligence, as well as his artistic and literary ability and achievements. Breton was one of the most popular and influential image-makers of his time, concerned with the nobility and honor of peasant life, always treating them with a simple, unobstructed style. Many of his compositions demonstrate that he was able to infuse a symbolic, pensive quality into these images, sometimes suggesting a strong romantic inclination, as shown in the present work. Tasked with the everyday chore of feeding the chickens, this young woman is deep in thought, contemplating her future, perhaps outside of the family farm.
Museum collections featuring works by this artist include:
• Art Institute of Chicago, IL;
• Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York;
• Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco;
• Detroit Institute of Art, MI;
• Musée du Louvre, Paris;
• Musée d’Orsay, Paris;
• Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;
• Réunion des Musées Nationaux, France;
• Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC;
• Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland;
• Brooklyn Museum, New York;
• Carnegie Museum of Art, PA;
• Chi-Mei Museum, Taiwan;
• Cleveland Museum of Art, OH;
• Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, MO;
• Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper, France;
• Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA;
• The Walters Art Museum, MD;
• Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam