Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 356-357
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Jules Breton appears in most surveys of nineteenth-century art only as a comparison to Jean-François Millet. This effectively positions Breton as a purveyor of "official realism," a government-approved style that contrasts with Millet's less palatable and palliating style. For example, in Millet's Gleaners of 1857, the repeated motif of the bent backs of the women gathering harvest leftovers emphasizes the painful labor involved. In Breton's Gleaners of a few years earlier, however, a white-skinned maiden with a delicate profile walks the golden field, children scamper, and women work companionably under the genial supervision of the village policeman. Though Breton includes figures who look strained and fatigued, any suggestion of the punishing effects of agricultural labor is visually and socially relieved by images of idyllic communal tradition.
Annette Bourrut Lacouture, curator of the exhibition Jules Breton, La Chanson des blés, and author of its accompanying catalogue, tries to avoid this standard comparison, which itself dates to the nineteenth century (Huysmans: "Millet was an honest artist; after him M. Breton began to play the role of the worthy peasant in painting" [228 ]). She instead explains Breton's realism through the stylistic and critical terms of the period, in which academy-trained artists aimed to combine the beau idéal - a classical standard of beauty - with the study of nature. The effect was nature poeticized, or nature given "style," often through a formula in which a balanced and classical composition contained more natural figures, or in which a central figure took up a stylized, "antique" attitude, permitting the others to again remain brute nature. Bourrut Lacouture aims to show that the result, realism unspoilt by ugliness, was not due to Breton acting as a puppet of aristocratic patrons or the government, but was the product of someone who, in his own words, "would become familiar with the passions and feelings of humble folk and art would pay tribute to them - tribute that was once reserved exclusively for the gods and the great" (16).
In order to demonstrate Breton's sincerity, as well as to ascribe to him a middle-class humanitarian sensibility akin to that expressed by George Sand, Bourrut Lacouture [End Page 356] turns to biography. She can thus stress his lifelong ties to the rural regions of his childhood and his art - the same regions of Arras and Quimper whose museums sponsored the exhibition - which imply a degree of authenticity for his "insider" observations. Though the biographical structure of the catalogue does not itself offer a powerful theoretical frame for understanding the significance of Breton's art - "His love of nature soon led him to study landscape painting" (17) - the web of detail on his relationships and background, enriched by unpublished letters as well as the author's exhaustive and insightful research, does illumine how Breton's style fit the needs of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Eldest son of a Deputy Judge busy restoring the family chateau, Breton learned the importance of acquiring grace, or correct form and style, in life as well as art, albeit modified by Enlightenment philosophies that stressed moral progress and sincerity. The effect of his education was not to produce a refined aristocrat, but a man who, after the loss of the family fortune, only loved the peasants more - especially when they didn't try to become "overly familiar" (64). Indeed, Bourrot Couture calls attention to an often overlooked period in Breton's career, when Breton and his family embraced the Second Republic. A self-portrait of the artist in his 1849 studio shows him dressed as a waggoner, surrounded by references to brotherhood, liberty (a bonnet phrygien on a plaster bust), and his huge painting Misery and Hunger of 1848. This last depicted what he called the "masculine vigour of the populace" (59); he reworked the...