Before the era of photography and mobile phones, paintings were often bought as pictorial aide-mémoirs and I am sure it still happens nowadays. It could be a portrait of a friend, relative or somebody one admires. It could be a specific landscape or cityscape which one had once visited and wanted to be reminded of. The completed painting would then adorn a wall in the room of one’s house and be looked at with pleasure every time we passed by it. Sometimes a painting is placed on display to lift our mood. Sometimes the painting may be there to remind us of a life we once had or a life we hanker for. Whatever the reason, artists cater for our wishes to remember. Of course, one has to decide whether the depiction in the landscape or cityscape painting is topographically accurate or is it an idealised version. Maybe we want an idealized version, as over time, do we not conjure in our mind just that.
When we look at paintings of rural scenes of the past and focus on the peasant workers, what are we wanting to see? Do we want to have a painting on our wall which focuses on the difficult times the peasant labourers faced? Do we want to see the folk poorly dressed, shoe-less and struggling to survive? If that is what we want hanging on the wall of one of our rooms then we need to search for works by the social realism painters. However, if we want to see depictions of happy smiling workers then we need to look for works by the rural naturalism painters such as today’s featured painter. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth-century French painter, Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton, one of the greatest artists who managed to convey the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, even if it was an idealised vision of peasant life.
Jules Adolphe Breton was born on May 1st, 1827 to an important family in the small village of Courrieres situated in the Pas-de-Calais department in the Hauts-de-France region of Northern France. His father, Marie-Louis Breton, oversaw land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when Jules was four and he was brought up by his father. Other family members who lived in the same house were his maternal grandmother, his younger brother, Émile, and his uncle Boniface Breton. Jules lived a contented life as a child despite losing his mother at that early age. His home life was relaxed and was a happy environment, and he got great pleasure playing with the local children belonging to the local peasant farmers despite Jules and them having come from different social classes.
At the age of ten, Breton was sent to school at a Catholic seminary run by the Jesuits. It was an unhappy experience for him. His fellow pupils were unkind to him and he had many a run-in with the authoritarian Jesuits. In the summer of 1842, fifteen-year-old Breton met a man who would shape his future. He, his father and uncle had been staying with friends at Muno, a Belgium town close to the French border and near the Amerois forest in the Ardennes. One evening a visitor called on his uncle. He introduced himself as Félix de Vigne, a painter and professor in the Academy in Ghent. He had come to examine four volumes of French costumes which had beautiful colour plates and belonged to Jules’ uncle. Although Jules Breton was introduced to de Vigne, the boy’s bashfulness prohibited him from talking about his love of drawing and painting and his desire to become an artist. When de Vigne left, Jules was devastated at missing the chance of confiding his artistic dreams with the painter.
In the autumn of 1842 Jules attended the College St. Bertin near Saint-Omer and it was here that he received his first artistic training. A year later, in 1843, Breton’s uncle happened to be returning home from Lille in a coach and found himself sitting next to Felix De Vigne. Knowing about his nephew’s disappointment with not conversing with de Vigne, he decided to arrange another meeting under the pretence that he would like the artist to come to their house in order to complete a portrait of my uncle. The artist agreed. Not to be wanting to miss another opportunity to talk about art to de Vigne, Jules presented him with sketches he had completed at the college. Although not liking Jules’ copies of mythological busts he was impressed by his pencil portraits and landscapes. In the summer of 1843, de Vigne then arranged with Breton’s father and uncle to allow Jules to live with his family and to study with him for three months at his atelier at no.8 Rue de la Line in a quiet quarter of the Belgium city of Ghent. In his autobiography Jules remembered his first impressions of the city:
“…The city of Ghent seemed to me magnificent. I felt proud and happy to be able to walk at will through the streets of this Flemish Venice, with its innumerable bridges, its old wharves crowded with merchandise, its ancient houses, some of which look down upon you from the middle ages and whose trembling images are reflected from the waters of the canals, where glide countless boats…”
Breton also remembered de Vigne’s eldest child, seven-year-old Elodie. And in his autobiography, he described her, writing:
“The eldest, Elodie, was a gentle child, in whose blue eyes, shaded by long, silken lashes, there already shone a mysterious charm. She went about the house silently, gliding rather than walking. She held her fragile figure thrown slightly backward and her delicately outlined face, resembling that of one of the angels in a Gothic cathedral, inclined forward, as if bending under the weight of a prematurely thoughtful brow……She was about seven years old and I danced her on my knees…”
Unbeknown to the then sixteen-year-old Jules, he and Elodie would become man and wife fifteen years after that first meeting. The couple married on April 29th, 1858. Jules was thirty-one and his wife was twenty-two. On July 26th 1859, their daughter Virginie was born. She studied art under her father and, through her father, she was introduced to other painters, the most influential being Rosa Bonheur who became her role-model and mentor.
Virginie was a very talented painter and by the age of twenty, she was exhibiting at the Salon where she received an Honourable Mention and, four years later, she won a Gold Medal at the Amsterdam Exposition. Virginie travelled extensively and exhibited her work in Holland and France, often receiving medals and citations. She became President of the Union of Women Painters and Sculptresses, and she was the second woman to receive the cross of the Legion of Honour, the first one going to Rosa Bonheur. Her paintings often featured motherhood or French fisherfolk themes. In 1880, she married artist Adrien Demont, once a student of her uncle, Emile, and the couple moved to Wissant, a small coastal village on the Côte d’Opale, midway between Calais and Boulogne.
Whilst living at Wissant, Virginie Élodie Marie Thérèse Demont-Breton began depicting the fishermen and their families in a Realist-style and one 0f her many paintings of that genre, which I particularly like is entitled Her Man is at Sea. In it we see a mother cradling her baby as she sits by the open fire. All her thoughts are about her husband who has left the home to go to sea with the local fishing fleet.
Obviously it was not just me that liked the work because in 1889 Van Gogh painted a work based on Virginie’s depiction!
Whilst in Ghent Jules Breton enrolled at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts where de Vigne was once again, one of his tutors. The director of the Academy at the time and another of Breton’s tutors was the Belgian portrait artist and sculptor, Henri van der Haert. During his stay at the Academy, Jules Breton became great friends with a fellow art student, Liévin de Winne, who would later become one of the foremost Belgian portrait painters of his time. The friendship between the two would last for many years. Breton studied at the Academy for three years and during this time he would study the works of the great Flemish Masters.
Jules Breton left Ghent midway through 1846 and travelled to Antwerp where he stayed for six weeks at the Hôtel Rubens in the Place Verte. He enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts at which time the director and one of Breton’s tutors was Gustaf Wappers. As a professor at the Academy Wappers had taught such well-known painters as Ford Madox Brown, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Breton’s tenure at the Academy lasted a mere three months as he decided it would be more beneficial to spend his time at The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp where he studied and copied the paintings of Rubens. Besides his love of the works of Rubens, Breton was influenced by the paintings by Memling, Van Eyck, Van der Weyden and Quentin-Matsys. Nineteen-year-old Breton contracted chronic bronchitis at the end of 1846 and his father had to bring him home from Antwerp. Jules was very surprised to see how old and ill his father looked and this, despite his own illness, was of great concern to him.
Eventually father and son got back to full health and Jules needed to decide upon his next step of his artistic journey, He and his father had visited Paris in 1845 and Jules believed he should return to the French capital and hone his artistic skills. The decision made, Jules returned to Paris in 1847 and took up residence in a small room on the third floor, at No. 5 Rue du Dragon, on Paris’s Left Bank. Now the only decision left to be made was which atelier should he join. After a recommendation Jules Breton went to study at the atelier of the neoclassic French painter, a painter of history and a portraitist, Michel Martin Drolling, who was a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Breton remembered the moment he and his father knocked on the door of Drolling’s atelier:
“…I knocked timidly at the door of his studio, it was Drolling himself, his palette in his hand, who opened the door. He wore a knitted woolen jacket and a red Greek cap, as he is represented in the portrait painted of him by his pupil Victor-Francois Biennourry. His frank and simple manners, somewhat brusque, and his long white moustache, gave him the air rather of a retired officer than of an artist…”
……………………to be continued.