Jules Breton spent most of his career in the village of Courrieres, in northern France, immersed in the life and customs of the rural environment. Raised by an uncle (Boniface Breton), Breton developed a close familiarity with rural life and saw how communities were organized since both his father and uncle served as mayor of the village.
When he was ten, Breton enrolled in a local school in St. Omer where he received his first drawing lessons. Felix de Vigne, a professor of art at Ghent, met Breton in 1842, and asked him to study with him in Belgium. Breton remained in Belgium throughout the mid-1840s, where he learned the traditions of academic painting, historical genre, and the heritage of northern art. In 1847, however, ill health forced him to return to Courrieres where he found his father dying.
After his own recovery, Breton was sent to Paris to finish his artistic education in the atelier of Michel-Martin Drolling. Here he further absorbed the academic conventions of the day while remaining open to the development of new aspects of contemporary realism.
By 1853, following a period in Paris where he worked on his own, Breton was exhibiting canvases at the Salon. His Retour des Moissonneurs was based on his own observations of rural life in Courrieres even though the canvas was completed from models he posed in his Parisian atelier. At the close of the 1853Salon, Breton returned to Courrieres and continued doing his sketches of rural life as part of a general interest in recording regional aspects of French life. During this period, Breton developed the plan for his first major Salon triumph- The Gleaners- a painting that received a third-class medal at the 1855 Salon. This work was well received and carefully studied, eventually influencing such painters as Jean-Francois Millet, who had already developed his own interest in the same theme.
Continuing to work in Courrieres, within an atelier that was enlarged by his uncle Boniface, Breton completed La Benediction des Bles (Musee de Compiegne) for the 1857 Salon. He received a second-class medal for the image and the praise of Comte Nieuwerkerke, the dominant art patron of the period. The painting was also purchased by the state. With his career going well, Breton again returned to Courrieres to develop other themes for the next Salon. His interest in rural life was maintained in The Recall of the Gleaners, Dedication of a Calvery, and The Seamstress, images that were well-hung at the 1859 Salon and which further assured Breton’s success in public and governmental arenas.
During the 1860s, Breton’s style became increasingly attuned to past masters, including Leopold Tobert, the major romantic painter of rural life, and many painters of the Italian renaissance. His paintings exhibited a classical quality while, at the same time, displaying a strong proclivity toward themes drawn from contemporary rural life. Throughout the remainder of his career, Breton was one of the most popular and influential image-makers concerned with the myth of peasant life. Many of his later compositions including The Shepherd’s Star (Toledo Museum of Art), and the famed Song of the Lark demonstrate that the painter was able to infuse a symbolic melancholy into these images to suggest a strong romantic inclination. Also considered as a serious writer and poet, Breton achieved an artistic supremacy in his lifetime that has seldom been equaled.
A student of contemporary painting, Breton was strongly influenced by the Barbizon tradition; his sketches and preliminary studies for his large scale Salon canvases reveal his ability to absorb and recast aspects of the Barbizon tradition for a slightly different audience. He did, however, continue the Barbizon heritage into the traditional academic camp.
Museum collections include:
Other Provincial museums in France…