By 1870, Jules Breton’s art was flourishing. He had fallen in love with Brittany, and his paintings of rural scenes and people around his home town of Courrières were being augmented by the contrasting scenery and people of Douarnenez. In the Spring, he travelled to Italy in company with his brother, and toured major sites including Florence, Rome, and Venice. Soon after his return to France, the Breton family went to stay in Douarnenez until well into the autumn. For the first time, he rented a former dance hall to use as a studio there to improve his working conditions.
A Peasant Girl Knitting (c 1870) was probably started, if not completed, en plein air in an old orchard near Douarnenez. Although a sensitive portrait, it lacks the intimacy and personal feelings which many of his other portraits of country people have.
In The Shepherdess (1870), Breton delves deeper into the personality of his model, and her working life, in a manner typical of Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s depictions of young waifs and strays. Although her blouse is clean and white, the rough coat or cloak which she carries must have been handed down through several previous owners.
Probably dating from the late summer of 1871, Returning from the Fields appears to have been painted at Courrières, with its flatter wheatfields. Three young women, barefoot and wearing working clothing, have finished for the day and are talking as they walk back to their homes. One carries a hoe, suggesting that they were not working on these crops but further afield.
Breton’s facture displays a broad range of painterliness, from the Salon precision of the figures and the ripe wheat in the foreground, to the very loose tree in the right background.
In 1871, the Breton family again spent much of the summer and autumn in their now-customary haunts in Brittany. It was probably in the previous year that he started making a series of studies which evolved into Élodie with a Sunshade, Baie de Douarnenez (1871). This shows Breton’s wife Élodie reading, with the magnificent view over the Bay of Douarnenez to the low hill of Ménez-Hom in the far distance. Ménez-Hom is reputed to have been a sacred place in neolithic times, and is the subject of many local legends.
Breton’s composition is strikingly reminiscent of the recently-dead Frédéric Bazille‘s View of the Village (1868), which was so well received in the Salon of 1869. I wonder whether Breton’s painting may have been paying homage to Bazille.
In November, Breton made a short visit to London. By that time, Pissarro and Monet had left England; it is likely that Breton would have visited dealers there, perhaps including Durand-Ruel’s recently-established branch.
The following year saw two fine portraits of a young Breton woman spinning on the coast of the Bay of Douarnenez. The Flax Spinner (1872, above) and Young Woman Spinning (1872, below) probably show the same model, provisionally identified as Soisik Jouinou, who was a favourite with Breton at this time.
Of the two, the lower painting has surely caught her in the midst of a spinning daydream, gazing far into the distance while her hands watch the distaff (at her left hand) and drop spindle (below her right hand). This method of hand-spinning originated thousands of years ago, and gives the painting a timeless quality: it could have been painted at almost any time over the preceding several centuries.
In 1872, Breton was awarded the Salon’s Médaille d’Honneur.
The Fig Picker (1873) was also painted in Brittany, where figs were a traditional fruit crop. The climate there is mild and moist, and since their probable introduction by the Romans, several suitable varieties have been developed. The picker wears a capacious apron to contain the crop, and her sickle rests on the ground near her feet.
Breton continued to work on studies for his larger and more complex works: in Brittany, even more than at Courrières, these came to record outdoor religious ceremonies such as pardons. Woman with a Taper (1873) is one of his finest studies of this kind, showing a woman in formal traditional dress bearing a lighted taper in one hand, and silently praying the Rosary with the other.
Four of Breton’s major works, including The Blessing of the Wheat and The Recall of the Gleaners, were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Vienna, in 1873.
Peasant Woman Resting (1873) is another of Breton’s intimate portraits of poor women, probably painted earlier in the year when he was back in Courrières.
One of Breton’s major works from this period is The Festival of Saint-Jean, which was shown in the Salon of 1875; sadly I have been unable to locate a suitable image of that finished painting, but this study for it, The Feast of Saint John (1875) (even with its poor image quality) may give you an idea of its magnificence. If Breton painted this, or any of his other studies, from nature, those are most likely to date from 1874 or earlier, for the finished work to be ready for submission to the Salon early in 1875.
Like the Midsummer’s Eve paintings of Nikolai Astrup, it shows the bonfires and dancing which took place on the eve of the feast of Saint John. I believe that this was painted at Courrières and not in Brittany, judging by the distinctive church tower visible in the finished version. That work was purchased from the artist by Goupil in March, before the Salon in May, and was then sold on to a British dealer in June for 45,000 Francs.
Following encouragement from friends he made in Brittany, Breton published a volume of his poetry in 1875. If anything, that proved even more popular than his paintings.
Lacouture, Annette Bourrut (2002) Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 09575 3.