Little did Jules know but this trip with his father to arrange his art tutoring was the last time they would be together as shortly after his father returned to Courrieres, he died. On hearing of his father’s death, Jules returned home and he was alarmed to see on checking, that the finances of the family business were in a bad state, so much so, some of the family’s furniture had to be sold. Breton finally realised what it was like to be poor and suddenly was able to imagine how the local peasants must feel about their impoverished lifestyle. He had always loved playing with and mixing with the young peasants but he had never really had to share their lifestyle or their social position in life. With that in mind the depictions in his paintings began to be all about social realism and the predicament of the poor and the downtrodden.
Many of Breton’s paintings featured the peasant workers, mainly women, who were known as gleaners, gatherers of grain or other produce left behind in the fields after harvest. This was a charitable activity that allowed the poor and destitute members of a community to collect leftover material after a commercial harvest. Jules Breton’s desire to depict the plight of the poor and oppressed, was sated with his many depiction of the gleaners. A good example of this is his 1859 painting housed at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Le rappel des glaneuses [Calling in the Gleaners]. It is an ordinary scene of peasant life in his hometown of Courrières.
Unlike Jean-François Millet’s famous depiction in which we see three women bent over picking up the grain, Jules Breton had portrayed the gleaners leaving the field in which they had been working. It is the end of the day and the sun has set behind the trees which gives the painting the warm golden glow of late afternoon. We see the crescent moon in the sky above and to the left and we catch sight of the rural policeman leaning against a milestone cupping his hands around his mouth like a speaking trumpet as he calls in the gleaners. There are elements of realism in the way Breton has shown the female workers in threadbare, ragged clothes and barefooted but in a way this is also an idealised scene with the peasants walking out of the field with their heads held high in a noble and dignified pose and it was this idealistic and picturesque representation of the peasants and their working life which pleased both the critics and public. The painting was exhibited at the 1859 Salon and was much admired by those who saw it. It even caught the eye of the Empress Eugenie, who arranged for it to be bought by the French state. It was then exhibited at the Château de Saint Cloud, and three years later, it was given by the Emperor to the Musée du Luxembourg, which was then known as the Musée des Artistes Vivants.
Female gleaners also featured in Breton’s painting entitled The Last Gleanings which is part of the Huntington Art Museum collection in San Marino, California.
In his painting. The Last Gleanings, there are three main characters in the foreground. A young girl standing alongside a mature woman, both bare-footed, maybe mother and daughter, whilst, slightly behind them is an elderly woman. This differing of ages, youth, maturity and old age, along with the sunset and the gathering of the remnants of the wheat harvest, can be seen as a metaphor for the passing of time. The painting has a beautiful background featuring the setting sun, the rays of which wash over the low-lying clouds. More gleaners follow behind the three in the foreground and to the left we can see a man with a raised stick, signalling the end of the working day. Although Breton’s painting focuses on the practice of gleaning, we do not see the Millet-type women bent double picking up the remnant grains highlighting the back-breaking nature of the work. In Breton’s depiction we see the mother and daughter adorned in their peasant attire look well fed and it does not suggest poverty and hardship so his depiction is offering us a mixed message. On one hand we have a beautiful sunset and the two main characters wearing traditional costumes are carrying, with ease, bundles of wheat. They look well nourished and yet on the other hand they are walking bare-footed amongst the sharp stubble of the wheat field and we also are aware that continually bending over to gather the wheat is a back-breaking task performed by poor peasants.
Catherine Hess, the chief curator of European Art at The Huntington, said we should be aware of the situation in France at the time. She wrote:
“…In the late 19th century, the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune led to bloodshed and deprivation. And throughout the century, France remained a peasant nation, with three out of four men—many poverty-stricken—making their living by farming. Women, children, and the aged sought out gleaning to supplement their meagre provisions…”
The painting was bought by the American industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick. He purchased the painting for $14,000 in 1895, immediately following its presentation at the Paris Salon. Jules Breton wrote to Frick and talked lovingly about the depiction:
“…it expresses a feeling I have frequently felt before the majestic simplicity and beauty of our rustic scenes, when bathed in the last rays of the sun. Those daughters of our fields seem then to be transfigured, the reflections of the heavens giving them the semblance of being surrounded by a natural halo…”
In 1905 Henry Frick returned the work to the art dealer as his taste in art had changed and in 1906 it was purchased by Henry Huntington for his collection.
Another of Jules Breton’s paintings featuring female peasants at the end of their working day was completed in 1887 and entitled Fin du travail (The End of the Working Day). In this painting Breton has depicted three women returning from their day’s work in the potato fields. The way they have been backlit by the sunset adds to the theatrics of the depiction. Jules Breton had received Academic training and was well aware of the way historic paintings were very much the vogue when it came to teaching at the academy and maybe he remembered how the heroic betrayal of people in those paintings was thought to be currently de rigueur. Breton explained:
“… art was to do [the workers] the honour formerly reserved exclusively for the gods…”
The painting is part of the Brooklyn Museum collection.
In the late 1870’s Breton completed a number of single-figure paintings of young females, mainly part of peasant families. One example of this is his 1878 painting entitled The Wounded Seagull. It depicts a young Breton peasant woman cradling and stroking a wounded gull whilst other gulls fly around in the background. The strange thing about this depiction is that although tending to the bird she is not looking at it. Her demeanour is one of pensiveness and it seems that her mind is concentrating on other things in her life. This work was shown in 1881 at the first special exhibition at the newly founded St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts and remains part of the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Another single-figure work by Breton is housed at the Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai and is entitled A Fisherman’s Daughter which he completed in 1878. The painting depicts a girl wearing a red headband under a white cornette. She is dressed in a blue wool petticoat and a tawny bodice. Around her neck, she wears a purple cotton handkerchief crossed on her chest. On her arms there are false sleeves and in front of her an apron of grey canvas. She is barefoot, and leans against a rock as she repairs a fishing net for her father. This was a traditional task that women did for their sea-going folk. The setting is Port-Rhû near Douarnenez, in Brittany.
When Breton returned home to Courrières to help the family, he embarked on a number of figurative paintings of full-figure views against the flat fields. One such work was his 1880 painting, The Tired Gleaner. It portrays a young woman, stretching her arms, after a back-breaking day working in the fields, with a backdrop of the setting sun. Breton repeated this backdrop in many of his rural works.
One of Breton’s best known and most successful single-figure work is Song of the Lark which he completed in 1884. It was exhibited at the 1885 Salon where it was purchased by George A. Lucas a dealer from Paris, for his client, Samuel Putnam Avery, an American artist, art dealer, and philanthropist best remembered for his patronage of arts and letters. It eventually came part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection in 1917. It was deemed the most popular painting in America in a poll conducted in 1934 by the Chicago Daily News to find the “most beloved work of art in America” The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt unveiled The Song of the Lark as the winner and declared the painting as being her personal favourite. It depicts a barefoot young peasant woman farm worker, sickle in hand, happily singing as she sets off to work in the fields near Courrières. For this painting Breton’s model was a local woman, Marie Bidoul, who stood for him outdoors in the field at dawn and dusk until the artist was happy that he had captured her form.
Willa Cather’s 1915 novel The Song of the Lark takes its name from this painting.
…………………………..to be continued.