In the mid 19th century was the long road of revolutions against an oppressive government in France. Among these civil rebellions were increasing tensions between classes, influencing artisan’s compositions. What used to be the time of Romanticism gave way to Realism of modern lives in the lower class. One such artist was Jules Breton who depicts peasant women in their industrial labor with delicacy and grace in his oil painting The Weeders. Like a stepping stool for his other works it demonstrates Breton’s use of a calm pallet as desirable to the eye in the atmosphere of day and reseeding light in the rest of his peasant lifestyle series. Including a sense of heroism in their daily lives. However, his work was received with harsh criticism for what it lacked: true to life, weary and straining effects of labor conditions.
Commonly compared and contrasted at the time for their different interpretations of peasant life beside Jules Breton was artist, Jean-François Millet. Instead of a stretched reality of man’s relationship with nature, Jean-Francois Millet was praised for his “honest” realism. Not just in subject matter but the experience itself of backbreaking labor.
So, was there a “correct” interpretation of the life of a peasant? Arguably, the answer is no. Various audiences unintentionally brought their own experiences, which influence what they saw in these works. Additionally, the viewers made an interpretation of another interpretation because the artists themselves bring their own experiences. By comparing Jules Breton’s work with Millet’s, exemplifies Breton’s own depiction of the livelihood of peasants in the 19th century as an idealistic way of life.
Jules Breton, The Weeders, 1868, oil on canvas, 25.110.66
Breton commonly used sunsets in his works to add a poetic and desirable atmosphere of the peasants’ lifestyle. The fading glow of the last bit of sunlight depicts a serine moment while a woman to the far left stands gazing into the distance over the flat worked fields. Deep tones of reseeding light over the land force the eye upward in contrast with the sky. The viewer cannot help but join the women in the distance as she gazes out at the radiant soft glow. Jules Breton’s stream of working women throughout the composition of hunched over women in their tedious job, does not completely visually remove the strenuous effects of labor from the exaggerated arch of their backs. However, any sense of fatigue is removed from the young maidens’ faces with lack of color that would naturally tan the skin from the constant sun beating down on them.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners, 1857, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France, RF592
Millet’s harsh earthy tones of color add to the atmosphere of the worker’s strenuous task. Nothing about the scene pulls the eye in or comes across as desirable. Compositionally he placed his figures at the center of his piece facing the viewer strait on as the women work on their task of pulling up weeds. His work is meant to be a documentation that is both true to life in nature and the conditions of maintaining that nature.
Jules Breton, The Reapers, 1860, oil on canvas, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – Glasgow
In addition to Breton’s other pieces, time of day is picturesque or an otherworldly paradise. Young women stroll and socialize along side their bountiful fields of straw, unwearied by the days work ahead of them. While leading in front of the casual pack of women is a little girl carrying something light in the front hems of her skirt. Behind them are both fields of straw that are waiting to be harvested and another that has been fruitfully labored over. Both this background and pace of the women suggest there is work to be done but there is no hurry to meet a quota. Plus the everyday task of peasants’ shared labor produces companionship in how they show physical affection with both light gestures and embrace.
Jean-Francois Millet, Harvesters Resting, circa 1850-1853, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts – Boston
Tired figures rest sprawled out below their daunting task of hay that looms over them in the background. The viewer cannot even see the top of the closest haystack with a ladder leaning against its mass, hardly a match for the haystack’s height. Millet continues to use a flat color pallet in reflection of the laborer’s task. To the left, a fatigued woman is ready to drop her arm full of straw while a man gestures for her to sit down and join the other two women that are about to serve food to the anticipating hungry men around them. Her weariness is evident in light of her tasks never seeming to end. Shoes and other items are tossed to the side while both the men and women’s harvesting is put on pause. However, the women are pressed to keep going.
Jules Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
A young woman stands tall gesturing with her mouth slightly open in song as the day is coming to a close. Her features are natural and stylized – a moment before the sun is just about to pass over the horizon. She carries with her a sense of dignity and pride while gripping her reaping tool. In the background a field has just been cleared and concurred which expresses Breton’s common heroine theme in his paintings of the lower class.
Jean-Francois Millet, The Little Shepherdess, 1872, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Millet portrays a modest shepherd girl leaning against a tree in the shade with her staff put to the side. The features of her face are slightly hidden as she calmly plays with grass or a twig in her hand. Though this painting has a quieter relationship to the land compared to his other works of toil and labor she is slightly resting herself while aware that her flock is not far off. In relation to other interpretations of the lower working class women in the 19th century there is nothing particularly desirable about her lifestyle. Millet is instead showing the average and mundane of daily life.