After the success of The Festival of Saint-Jean, which was sold before it went on display at the Salon, and shortly afterwards sold on to another dealer for 45,000 Francs, Jules Breton came under increasing pressure from the dealers. Coupled with his new career as a poet, following publication of the first volume of his poetry in 1875, he found it hard to justify the time and preparatory studies required for larger ‘crowd’ paintings.
During the 1880s, in particular, he therefore concentrated on works showing one or only a few figures in rustic settings, which lack the gravitas of his more complex motifs. They did, though, provide the opportunity to explore the transient effects of light, which were becoming more significant with the rising popularity of Impressionism.
In 1877, Breton visited the south of France again, and his painting The Gleaner (1877) was bought for the state from exhibition at the Salon.
A Fisherman’s Daughter (1878) was painted at Port-Rhu near Douarnenez, in Brittany. It shows a young woman mending or making fishing net for her father, a very traditional task for the women who supported seagoing men. She wears local working dress, with a white cornette over a red headband, fawn bodice, and purple kerchief on her chest.
A couple of fishing boats are visible in the background. It is coincidental that Breton’s paintings of fisherfolk in Brittany were made at about the same time that Winslow Homer was documenting similar activities at Cullercoats in north-east England (1881 onwards).
Another painting from the Breton coast is The Wounded Sea Gull (1878), in which a different young woman cradles an injured gull in her arms. Oddly, she is not looking at the gull, but staring into the distance. This was perhaps a device to suggest to the viewer that she is reflecting on some greater meaning, but appears rather strange.
Innocent (c 1879) may have been intended as a study for a more substantial painting, but is a delightful work in its own right, and was probably also made near Douarnenez.
Breton maintained the family home back in Courrières, where he increasingly painted full-figure views against the flat fields. In the case of The Tired Gleaner (1880), this was into the setting sun, giving the sky the qualities of light which were characteristic of many of these paintings.
By this stage, most of Breton’s paintings had become far looser than they had been in the past. He decided in about 1867 that adhering to the Salon tradition was not good for his art, and had steadily become more painterly in his facture.
In 1880, his poem Jeanne was published, and his poetry was awarded the a Montyon Prize by the Académie Française, a great honour. However, the demands of art dealers were only increasing, and he was now attracting considerable interest from the large and rich market in the USA. Despite that, in 1881 he managed to visit The Hague and Brittany, although the latter was shorter than in many previous years.
Among the transient effects of light which had always interested Breton were rainbows, which appear in a few of his paintings. The Rainbow (1883) is his most dramatic, and was shown at the 1883 triennal exposition of the Salon, where its rough facture must have appeared quite progressive.
In 1884, Breton found time for some more complex paintings, including this Departure for the Fields and a much more substantial work, The Communicants, which now seems to have gone missing. Departure for the Fields is set in his favourite wheat fields just outside Courrières, but The Communicants may have been painted further afield, possibly even in Brittany.
Song of the Lark (1884) is one of his best single-figure works from this period, and was one of his most successful. It shows a barefoot young woman agricultural worker singing as she walks out to her work in the fields near Courrières, her sickle in her hand. Shown at the Salon in 1885, it sold to the USA, where it soon went on to Chicago.
Breton’s model was a local woman, Marie Bidoul, who stood for him outdoors in the field at dawn and dusk until the artist was happy that he had captured her form. At the time that he was working from the model, Breton had not committed himself as to whether the painting would show her at dawn or dusk. Thankfully for both, it was at least summer.
This painting was given to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1917, and since then it has been one of the most popular and loved paintings in its entire collection. In 1934, The Chicago Daily News ran a survey to decide the most popular painting in the Institute’s collection, which was won by Song of the Lark. Unfortunately the then director had decided to remove the painting from display, only to be forced to return it very quickly.
Study for The Snack (1885) is a wonderfully loose sketch which Breton made, again near Courrières, in preparation for The Snack, or The Tea-break as it is sometimes known, which was shown at the Salon in 1886.
That year, Vincent van Gogh, who was a great admirer of Breton’s paintings, walked 85 miles to visit the artist at his home in Courrières; at the last minute van Gogh was deterred by the high wall surrounding the property, and returned without trying to see him.
The following year, Breton showed The End of the Working Day (or Across the Fields) (1886-87) at the Salon. Apart from the precision of the three figures in the foreground, its looseness, rich colours, and use of light would surely qualify it as being Impressionist. This too sold to a US collector, and in 1921 was given to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, where it has proved very popular.
Not intended as a pendant to Song of the Lark, Breton’s The Shepherd’s Star (1887) would surely be an appropriate companion, as it shows a tired woman returning from the fields as the light of sunset fades to reveal the brightest of the stars above. On her head she balances a sack of potatoes. For this work, Breton used a ‘Catherine Bibi’ as the model.
This painting was shown at the Salon in 1888, and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, from where it was sold to the USA. It first went on display in the Art Institute of Chicago in 1889, but was then sold into a private collection. It went back on public display in 1922, when it was given to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio.
In 1887, Breton’s collected poetic works were published. However, his health was starting to trouble him: from 1886 he made annual visits to La Bourboule, a spa in the Auvergne, for treatment of various symptoms. In 1889, he was created a Commander in the Legion of Honour.
Lacouture, Annette Bourrut (2002) Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 09575 3.