The Salon of 1859 brought Jules Breton a first-class medal for his Calling in the Gleaners, and in the same year the couple’s only daughter was born. Over the following decade, he concentrated on less monumental and complex works. He never again matched his ferocious output of intricate paintings during the 1850s, but developed a distinctive style which was more about light than crowds of figures.
Young Girl Knitting (1860) is the second painting which Breton made of a young woman from Courrières knitting indoors. Many of these intimate works were sold to private collectors and have never been seen at exhibition.
Landscape at Courrières (1860) is an unusual view of a small avenue of poplars lining a watercourse just at the back of the town. The distinctive tower of the church is distant to the right. Breton’s facture is decidedly loose and pre-Impressionist, although this appears more finished than a sketch would be, and does not seem to match a more finished substantial work.
Over this period, Breton made several quite rapid and painterly sketches of various country scenes and events, such as the sudden arrival of a severe thunderstorm. Comparisons of the style of those works have been made with the sketchiness of Daumier, for example, and some of the late works of Delacroix.
The Rape Seed Harvest (1860) was one of the four paintings exhibited by Breton at the Salon in 1861. It is richer in figures and details, and more akin to his earlier major works. It shows locals from Courrières engaged in the harvest of a crop which has since become extremely popular: rapeseed or canola. With its distinctive brilliant yellow flowers before the growth and ripening of its seed, few associate those golden fields in the early summer with the black seeds shown in the foreground here: those are the canola seeds, which are so rich in oil.
At the time, rapeseed was probably grown in small quantities as a modern cash crop, and relied heavily on manual labour. Its oil has to be processed, as it is toxic to most animals and to humans until that has been performed.
In 1861, following his successes at the Salon, Breton was appointed to the order of the Legion of Honour. The following year took two of his paintings to the International Exposition in London. His reputation was now consolidated.
In 1862, Breton started work on a new commission, for the Comte Duchâtel, of a major work showing the grape harvest on his vineyards in Médoc, Bordeaux. Breton made a series of studies and photographs in preparation, including this Two Young Women Picking Grapes (1862). Unfortunately I have been unable to locate a usable image of the finished painting, The Vintage at Château Lagrange, which Breton completed in 1864 and exhibited at the Salon that year.
At the time, Château Lagrange was classified as one of the fourteen great Troisièmes Crus of Bordeaux, and the Comte Duchâtel – whose château appears in the distance here – was considered the master of a great wine. However, the purpose of Breton’s painting was clearly not to promote the wine or even the Comte: it was to accompany the original painting of The Weeders (1860), which the Comte had bought from Breton.
After his two long visits to work on this, Breton took time to travel around the south and south-west of France, before returning to Courrières.
Mother Feeding her Baby (1863) is one of the most gentle and touching of Breton’s portraits of country people, showing a mother, wearing clogs and clothing which has seen better days, feeding a very young baby in front of a frugal fire.
Not all families were struggling in such abject poverty, though. Grandfather’s Birthday (1864) shows three generations of a Courrières family living in slightly greater comfort, although their floors are still made of bare and worn tiles, and furniture is sparse but includes a spinning wheel. One of the grandchildren is just about to present their grandpa with a simple birthday cake, no icing, as another of the women works preparing a celebratory meal in the kitchen.
In the summer and autumn of 1865, Breton visited Brittany, which was a revelation to him. He started painting a succession of works showing the country people of Brittany, including this Washerwoman in Brittany (1865), and both coastal and rural views.
Breton, perhaps inevitably bearing that name, was convinced that his family were of Breton origin, and seems to have quickly developed a very deep relationship with the people and countryside of Brittany. Unfortunately, few of his paintings of Brittany are currently accessible in the form of usable images, and most seem to have gone into private collections.
Another of his fine figurative paintings of farmworkers at dusk, The Close of Day (1865), was exhibited at the Salon that year. Its composition is strongly based on triangles, which add to its simplicity and the strength of the figures.
The following year brought an outbreak of cholera to Breton’s home town of Courrières, which killed many of his lifelong friends. It was also the first year that the artist served on the jury of the Salon. He made contact for the first time with an American dealer, Samuel P Avery, who was largely responsible for developing Breton’s reputation and market in the US over the coming decades.
In 1867, ten of Breton’s paintings were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he was awarded a first-class medal.
The Weeders (1868) is a smaller variant of a painting of the same name which Breton made in 1860, and which was acclaimed when exhibited in the Salon of 1861, and the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Set in the fields just outside Courrières, the labourers are pulling up thistles and other weeds until the last moment that there is insufficient light for them to work any longer. Breton wrote of their faces encircled by the pink transparency of their violet bonnets, as if worshipping the life-giving star.
These two versions of the same painting mark Breton’s transition from concentrating on large outdoor religious ceremonies and their crowds, to these profoundly moving panoramas of the sky at dusk, under which smaller groups of farmworkers are toiling in wide open fields.
Though only peasants, the light transforms these women into classical beauties, an observation made by the critics at the time. This gives rise to a phenomenon repeated across Breton’s panoramas of country work, in which these classical figures appear in thoroughly socially-realist landscapes – showing their sanctity in labour.
In the summer and autumn, Breton stayed again in Brittany, as he did in each of the following six years. During these prolonged visits, he lived in the town of Douarnenez, on the coast to the north-west of Quimper, in the far west of the Armorican Peninsula (including the major port of Brest).
In 1869, he exhibited another of his major paintings featured populous country religious ceremonies, A Great Pilgrimage in Brittany (1869), which he had worked on when staying in Douarnenez. The finished painting was, as before, the culmination of many studies which Breton made in and around that town.
Lacouture, Annette Bourrut (2002) Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 09575 3.