Jules Breton: Les Communiantes
At the beginning of the nineteenth century grand Salon submissions of religious subjects were encouraged, reinforced by the monarchy’s mutual support of church and state. Breton had tried his hand at large religious canvases while he was a student, including Saint Piat prêchent dans les Gaules (1846), an unfinished Chemin de Croix (1847) and Baptême de Christ (1851), all of which have since disappeared, but as the French political environment changed, so did the expectations of official artists. Large biblical narratives were abandoned by artists who instead sought to represent the Divine through humanity and the everyday. To this end, the representation of working people in rural France, and especially their religious rituals, pageants and processions, took on a special significance. If the abrupt and radical Realism of Gustave Courbet’s 1850 Salon submission, Burial at Ornans did not ignite a broader movement in Realist art, it can be used, retrospectively, as a mid-century pivot point that happens to coincide with the initiation of Breton’s formidable career as an artist. Reexamination of Breton’s oeuvre, accolades and commercial success reveals that he was answering the call of the Realist and Naturalist movements while simultaneously participating in the Academic system, and Les Communiantes gives clear evidence.
As the self-proclaimed "peasant who paints peasants," Jules Breton achieved recognition from his first Salon entry in 1849, and quickly earned recognition from his peers including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Constant Troyon and Vincent Van Gogh, among others. Breton’s inspiration came from the real working people of rural France, and he achieved great commercial success by imbuing his subject with a certain amount of the ideal. Throughout his career, the theme of religious traditions allowed him to explore the spiritual heart of rural communities, notably in Brittany and Courrières, where he lived. One of the earliest paintings to explore the subject of communicants is Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières (circa 1860), and foreshadows his inclination to the present subject which would be conceived more than twenty years later in response to a commission from the influential American agent, Samuel P. Avery. [Sotheby’s]