Water Carriers
(Jules Breton)


Breton had made his first trip to Italy in 1863, and this unusual subject was evidently inspired by his travels there; indeed it may have been painted in Italy. Although the artist had not been associated with the realist school since the mid-1850s, he continued to admire Courbet, to whom he has paid an obvious tribute, with his lavish use of the palette knife. The high-key, however, is unusual in the work of both artists and in this idealization of Italian peasant life he demonstrates the continuing influence of Leopold Robert, with echoes of the Italian subjects of Corot. Breton has avoided explicit narrative, as it is possible to interpret this subject simply as two Italian girls collecting water from a spring near the sea, but the viewer is tempted to look further. While one girl is fully engaged in her task, the other looks wistfully towards the cliff top where a young man and girl are seated close together, gazing out at the Mediterranean beyond. While her face is in shadow, her stance suggests anger and we may suppose that this other girl is her rival for the young man’s affections. While there are no direct topographical references, the costume of the two girls and the setting suggests the Amalfi coast, or perhaps Citrella, on Capri. This work marks the beginning of the artist’s move away from the realism of his earlier years towards the more romantic style of the remainder of his career.

A related drawing (New York, Karen B. Cohen Collection) in black chalk, of the central figure in our painting but holding a fishing net instead of a water pail, has been dated to his time in Brittanny. Its appearance in this earlier picture demonstrates that it was probably drawn at Courrieres.

18 ¾ x 27 ins. 47.6 x 68.6 cm.
Oil on canvas

To be included in Annette Bourrut La Couture’s forthcoming catalogue raisonné.


Matthiesen Gallery and Stair Sainty Matthiesen, ‘The Gallic Prospect’, 1999

Historical Period
Romanticism - 1810-1870
Genre or Daily Life
2001-European Paintings-From 1600-1917.
Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Realism, Futurism.

(Click on image above)
Price band
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