John Leslie Breck's earliest Impressionist paintings were produced in Giverny, France, where he was among the first Americans to discover the charms of this village on the River Epte. In 1887 Breck promoted the village among his fellow American students at the Académie Julian in Paris, many of whom also settled there, and like Breck, resided at the new Hotel Baudy, which catered to foreign artists. The hotel quickly became a focus of American expatriate activity, including, in addition to Breck, the artists Theodore Butler, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson and Theodore Wendel, among others. The Baudy was a short walk from Monet's home and garden.
Notice of this vanguard group of American Impressionists appeared swiftly in the press. The same year, in October 1887, a critic for The Art Amateur suggested that the development of an Impressionist expatriate style was immediate and profound: "Quite an American colony has gathered, I am told, at Givernay [sic], seventy miles from Paris, on the Seine, the home of Claude Monet, including our Louis Ritter, W. L. Metcalf, Theodore Wendell [sic], John Breck, and Theodore Robinson of New York. A few pictures just received from these young men show that they have got the blue-green color of Monet's impressionism and 'got it bad.'" (Anonymous, "Boston Art and Artists." The Art Amateur, 17, no. 5, (October 1887), p. 93, as quoted in R.H. Love, Theodore Earl Butler: Emergence from Monet's Shadow, Chicago, Illinois, 1985, p. 59)
In the main, Monet did not interact a great deal with the American expatriates, yet Breck was in Monet's inner circle, and enjoyed unique artistic access to the Impressionist master, which was even noted in a contemporary art periodical lauding his work: "John Leslie Breck of Boston...is the only pupil of the French Impressionist, Claude Monet. Mr Breck's pictures have created no little interest in artistic circles in Boston." (The Studio, vol. 8, October 11, 1890, p. 47)
During the summer of 1890, Breck returned to Boston, where in November he opened his first of three exhibitions at the St. Botolph Club. According to William Gerdts, the show "provoked a storm of reaction in both Boston and in New York. Boston criticism ran the gamut from genuine admiration to charges of amateurism and slovenly brushwork." (William H. Gerdts, American Impressionism, New York, 1984, p. 65-66) Breck continued to exhibit in Boston, and in his 1893 exhibition at the J. Eastman Chase Galleries he showed a group of landscapes. In a review a critic wrote: "Mr. J. L. Breck, who has been saddled, whether he likes it or not, with the title 'Head of the American Impressionists,' exposes 39 landscapes in oils at Chase's gallery...Mr. Breck's career has been a curious one. Two years ago he came to Boston, his native city, absolutely unknown to fame, and opened his first American exhibition at the St. Botolph Club. It is stating it mildly to say that artistic Boston was nearly pushed off its critical equilibrium and a fierce controversy at once arose between the champions of the old, or black, and the new, or light, landscape schools, of which latter Mr. Breck was at once recognized, by friend and foe, to be the American head. The fight ended in a rout of the enemy. Such authoritative collectors as Mr. Quincy Shaw eagerly bought the pictures, and one has but to visit the Boston studios and exhibitions of today to see the powerful effects of that little collection at the Botolph Club...America has reason to be proud of a painter of Mr. Breck's strength." (D. W. X., "Mr. John L. Breck's Landscapes," The Boston Daily Globe, Jan 25, 1893, p. 10)
Painted just a year after his success with the Chase exhibition, Early Snow combines the delicate Impressionist style, which typifies his very best landscapes, with a bold composition. Here the viewer looks from a high vantage point over a New England landscape covered with fresh snow. The locality is the Breck family farmhouse in West Rutland, near the center of Massachusetts, where the artist is known to have painted other winter scenes in 1894.
Breck casts the foreground in a dramatic blue shadow, which he contrasts with warm light illuminating the rest of the scene. Painted in a high-keyed palette characteristic of Impressionism, the landscape depicts the strong raking light of an early morning on a crisp and clear winter's day. Close examination of the paint surface suggests the presence of a layer of green paint underneath the snow--giving rise to the possibility that the landscape may have begun as a green design spontaneously altered by the artist. Given his tendency to paint landscapes directly from nature, which he had learned from painting with Monet in Giverny, it is an attractive notion that he may have been forced by the happenstance of a snowfall to alter his original intentions. This is one of the earliest and purest Impressionist achievements by any American painter.