Picturing Woman: Paintings of Jules Breton

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.

Breton, The Cliff, 1874

La Falaise (The Cliff), 1874

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!

Breton, Les Amies

Les Amies(Friends), 1873

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, Calling in the Gleaners

Le Rappel des Ganeuses(Calling in the Gleaners), 1859

Jules Breton http://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

Les Bineuses(The Weeders), 1868

Breton, Evening in the Hamlet of Finistere

Soir dans le hameau de Finistère(Evening in the Hamlet of Finistère), 1887

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Jeunes Femmes allant à une Procession(Young Women Going to a Procession), 1890

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.

Breton, Sur la Route en Hiver

Sur la Route en Hiver(On the Road in Winter), 1884

Breton, Fin du Travail, 1887

Fin du Travail(End of Work), 1884

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.

Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884

Le Chant de l’Alouette(The Song of the Lark), 1884

Gaurdian of the Turkeys

Gardeuse de Dindons(The Guardian of the Turkeys), 1864

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Mère Nourrir son Bébé(Mother Nursing Her Baby), 1863

Breton, Last Flowers, 1890

Dernières Fleurs(Last Flowers), 1890

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!

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Brandon Sanderson


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“What is a woman’s place in this modern world?” Jasnah Kholin’s words read. “I rebel against this question, though so many of my peers ask it. The inherent bias in the inquiry seems invisible to so many of them. They consider themselves progressive because they are willing to challenge many of the assumptions of the past.

They ignore the greater assumption–that a ‘place’ for women must be defined and set forth to begin with. Half of the population must somehow be reduced to the role arrived at by a single conversation. No matter how broad that role is, it will be–by-nature–a reduction from the infinite variety that is womanhood.

I say that there is no role for women–there is, instead, a role for each woman, and she must make it for herself. For some, it will be the role of scholar; for others, it will be the role of wife. For others, it will be both. For yet others, it will be neither.”
Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance

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Quote for Today: Mark O’Flynn

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She follows her nose and stands once more before the doors of a quintessential dilemma. Male or Female. Here is her paradox. A staccato voice seems to challenge her, berate her. Hombre or Mujer. Mann or Frau. Homme or Femme. Gentleman or Lady. Come on, decide. She knows them all. She is them all. Not fluid or all-encompassing, gathering the harvest of the reaping fields, but fractured and split and bleeding. Her inner core weeping out of itself. There is nothing for hermaphrodites. It’s too confusing. The words rattle around in her earbones, androgynous and humming. How can she choose? She cannot choose. To choose is to sunder.
Mark O’Flynn, The Last Days of Ava Langdon

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Quote for Today: Virginia Woolf

 

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When, however, one reads of a witch being dunked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Maya Angelou

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Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman”

Public Domain Image via PxHere

Quote for Today: Salman Rushdie

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Sometimes by a woodland stream he watched the water rush over the pebbled bed, its tiny modulations of bounce and flow. A woman’s body was like that. If you watched it carefully enough you could see how it moved to the rhythm of the world, the deep rhythm, the music below the music, the truth below the truth. He believed in this hidden truth the way other men believed in God or love, believed that truth was in fact always hidden, that the apparent, the overt, was invariably a kind of lie.
Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence
Public Domain Image via Pixabay