Jules Breton's career coincided with that of Jean François Millet, and while they each are best known for their depiction of the French peasant, their interpretations could not have been more different. Vincent van Gogh referred to both Millet and Breton as "the voice of the wheat", and he therefore appreciated the different qualities found in each artist's work. Jules Breton idealized the lives of the peasants he saw around him. In reality, their lives were filled with backbreaking labor, but this was never emphasized in Breton's painting. His utopian vision is supported by his own writings, La Vie d'un Artiste and Un Peintre paysan where he describes his peasants as "always gay and sprightly." He viewed them as 19th century gods and goddesses at work in an arcadian land, bathed in morning sunshine or in the glory of the setting sun. He fills his paintings with beautiful shepherdesses, harvesters and gleaners, who are defined by an almost perfect harmony of color, composition and light.
Success came relatively early in Jules Breton's career, when his painting, The Gleaners (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) met with positive critical acclaim at the Salon of 1855. Millet also was working on his own interpretation of gleaners in the early 1850s in a series of paintings and drawings, which culminated in his controversial Salon entry of 1857. One immediately will be struck by the differences between Millet's and Jules Breton's interpretations of this subject - a sight that would have been familiar to them both in their native lands of Barbizon and Courrières. Gleaners came from the ranks of the poorest, landless peasants, and often were made up of the weakest members of society - women, children, the elderly and the handicapped. The gleaners followed the harvesters to salvage for their families the last kernels of grain missed by the reapers. This was backbreaking, tedious labor - scrounging for tiny morsels of grain amidst the dirt of the earth. Gleaning was often what stood between the peasant and starvation. However, we do not see this emphasized in our painting of gleaners by Jules Breton because the depiction of the reality of the labor was not his intention. Breton has placed his workers in a field of golden wheat. They have become objects to be bathed in the last rays of the setting sun, which casts its rosy glow off in the distance. As Jules Breton once wrote: "looking at a twilight scene, it matters little that my eye should receive the impression of the view, if my spirit does not at once experience a feeling of repose, of tranquility and of peace." (J. Breton, La Vie d'un artiste, p. 280). For Breton, evening was the "ideal hour chasing away all miseries so only beauty can appear." (J. Breton, Un Peintre paysan, p. 100).
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Jules Breton by Annette Bourrut Lacouture.