Jules Breton

1827 - 1906

Place Born


Place Died



The origins of Breton’s life-long fascination with rural life lay in his own beginnings, as the son of a land-agent for the Duke of Duras, and following the death of his mother when he was four, as a pupil of his uncle, a huntsman. Thus he was steeped in the traditions of the Norman farmers and peasants who continued to populate his paintings until the end of his career. As a young student at Douai his artistic talent brought him to the attention of a minor Belgian painter, Felix de Vigne (whose daughter he was later to marry), who arranged for his entry into the Royal Academy at Ghent, where Breton was able to study the early Netherlandish masters. At the age of twenty he left for Paris, where he joined the studio of Martin-Michel Drolling, an artist whose somewhat retardataire style nonetheless gave him a good solid foundation in painting techniques. With the death of first his uncle and then, in 1849, his father (both of whom had been successively mayors of Courrières), the Breton family finances were devastated at the very moment when Jules was beginning his independent career. This disaster, and indeed the consequences of the 1848 revolution on the French peasantry, inspired the young painter to record their suffering in two ultra-realist works, both unfortunately now destroyed, Misery and Despair, and Famine (Salon, 1850-51).

The early 1850s saw Breton begin to paint landscapes en plein air and in 1854 he established his studio in his hometown of Courrières. Thenceforward he concentrated primarily on scenes from rural life, which share the sentiments of Millet in their directness, even though contemporary critics urged him to distance himself from the sometimes harsh realism of Courbet. The Burning Hay Stack (1856, Detroit, Institute of Art) and Departure for the Fields (1857, Canada, Private Collection) were followed by a succession of similar works through the remainder of the decade, for which he obtained Salon medals. In 1861 he received the gold medal, and shortly after was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, a public recognition that also brought him increased earnings as well as a place on the Salon Jury. After a trip to Italy in 1863, he spent some time in Brittany, where peasant life had been virtually unchanged for centuries, and at the same time a heightened romanticism can be noted in his work, even more apparent after his second trip to Italy in 1870. His later works were more symbolist and lyrical, marking a more distinct break with the earlier realistic style influenced by Courbet. He also concentrated on the role of women in the rural environment and exercised a considerable influence on the generation of Bastien-Lepage, Léon L’hermitte and Julien Dupré.

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Historical Period: 1810-1870 Romanticism
Water Carriers