Many painters have taken their inspiration from the female form, but Jules Breton is unique. Trained in the European classical tradition, or “grand style” as he called it, he returned home to rural Brittany to produce his masterpieces. His subjects were not grand dames or famous historical scenes as was usual for the period and style, but peasants, country festivals and domestic life. Eschewing hunting scenes and manly exploits, he preferred quieter moments, most often depicting women. He did not paint with a sexualized gaze, but with an honest regard and a desire to hint at feminine interior life. Breton’s talent is such that he can do so without even showing us the woman’s face.
Keenly observant, Breton uses body language and landscape to create an incredible range of mood; resilience, dreaminess, practicality and nobility are all part of his repertoire. Breton’s women are active and relatable. Les Amies is a particularly wonderful example. We aren’t sure what the woman in the center is being persuaded to believe or do, but her discomfort is obvious–arms folded protectively across her gut, wariness in her face–and we are acutely aware of the physical pressure being exerted by her friends who feel the need to lean in and put a hand on her. I’m not sure if they are offering support or asserting dominance. What, if anything, are we to make of the village church lurking in the background? Is there a man involved? Breton makes you want to be there so that you can answer all of those questions. He also paints wonderful feet!
Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton was born on May 1, 1827 in the small village of Courrières, France, where his father managed land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was four years old. Certainly his longing for her shaped the artist he would become and perhaps lay at the heart of his interest in rural femininity. Jules’ life changed when he met the Belgian painter Félix De Vigne. De Vigne saw potential and persuaded the Breton family to send the young man to Ghent to study with him at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. Jules was fifteen years old when he left home for the big city in 1843. Studying with some of Europe’s finest academic painters, he would move to Antwerp in 1846 and Paris in 1847. He returned home to Courrières in 1854 and married Elodie de Vigne, the daughter of his former teacher and one of his favorite models, in 1858.
Breton found great pleasure in painting real people and people found his art disarmingly real. This translated into a striking balance between artistic satisfaction and commercial success. His paintings were so popular that he frequently painted copies and had engravings made, all of which sold well. In 1880, Vincent van Gogh walked eighty-five miles to visit the important painter, only to get cold feet and turn around upon reaching the high wall around Breton’s property. By the time of his death in 1906, at the age of 79, Jules Breton was a famous international master, a member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Art and a Commander of the Legion of Honor. He was also a published poet and writer.
Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.
It is Breton’s conciseness and simplicity which imbue the rural woman’s mundane experience with value and honesty, even as his romantic light and the warmth and softness of his color elevate her to a level of nobility that approaches the sacred. This celebration of common humanity was extremely attractive at a time when kingdoms were being replaced by democracies and is still quite striking today. If we accept Marie Shear’s definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people,” Jules Breton can even be called a feminist painter. What a profound ally we can find in his great talent and meticulous attention!