CAT 180. Drawn by Émile Breton after his own painting L’Hiver. In “La Peinture au Salon de Paris, 1879,” L’Art 5 (1879): 192.
Émile Adélard Breton (1831-1902) was the younger brother of Jules Breton, whose Calling in the Gleaners won a gold medal in the Salon of 1859. After studying with his brother, Émile Breton won medals three years in a row beginning in 1866. He received the Legion of Honor in 1878 and a gold medal in 1889 and was praised for his emotional “sensitivity” by Van Gogh in 1882. Émile Breton spent his entire life in his home town, Courrières (Pas-de-Calais), “painting melancholy horizons of Artois country, stormy skies, and winter nights” (Benezit 2006).
Breton’s L’Hiver (Winter) is not discussed in the forty-seven-page essay in which it appears in L’Art, but the engraving made from it has the distinction of being the sole image on its last page (192; see our image of the page on the Catalog layer). At the small scale of this reproduction, some of the figures in the foreground cannot clearly be distinguished, but the mood is clear as can be. This image looks ahead to Impressionism at the same time that it looks back to stormy seas and melancholy landscapes that Paul Huet had painted and engraved in the region of Pas-de-Calais (Schurr 2: 47).
Paintings by Émile Breton’s older brother Jules were highly desired by American collectors during the years in which Melville was expanding his print collection in New York. By the time Melville retired from the Custom House in 1886, there were more and more opportunities to see paintings by Jules Breton in public spaces. In 1887, his Religious Procession in Brittany and A Peasant Girl Knitting arrived at the New York Metropolitan Museum as part of the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection. In the same year, Jules Breton’s The Weeders (fig. 1) was exhibited and sold at the galleries of the American Art Association at 6 East 23rd Street (South Madison Square), a short walk from Melville’s house on 104 East 26th Street. In 1887 this painting would have been of potential interest to Herman Melville as the poet who was assembling the collection he was to call Weeds and Wildings, unpublished at his death in 1891.
Figure 1. Jules Breton. The Weeders, oil on canvas, 1868. Exhibited at the American Art Association in 1877, bequeathed to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1900.
Jules Breton, like Jean-François Millet, was fascinated by the work of the “gleaners,” the impoverished French peasants who picked through the site of an agricultural harvest in search of any morsels of value that been left behind. Breton had himself introduced this theme at the 1854 Paris Salon with his oil painting The Gleaners, which won a third-class medal. Millet had followed with his oil painting The Gleaners at the 1857 Paris Salon, followed by Breton's Calling In The Gleaners in 1859. Breton then made a new variation on their common theme with The Weeders, the oil painting he exhibited at the 1861 Paris Salon. The version of the painting exhibited and sold in New York in 1887 was a “smaller variant” of the same image. Breton later called it a “twilight scene of peasants pulling up thistles and weeds,” their faces “haloed” by the setting sun (“The Weeders, 1868, Jules Breton”).
In 1888, more paintings by Jules Breton arrived in Melville’s near neighborhood. They were featured in a two-man show with Eugene Delacroix at the Galleries of M. Knoedler and Company at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street (see Concerning Delacroix and Jules Breton). Among the works by Breton in this exhibition were two new paintings of female workers in the fields of France commissioned by Knoedler. Le Matin was a full-length portrait of a young woman with a shovel and a sack arriving in the fields in the early morning ready to begin a long day of work; she had been a central figure in the painting A travers champs that Breton had exhibited at the Paris Salon the year before. Its companion painting, Le Soir, shows the same model carrying a heavy potato sack from the field absolutely exhausted at the end of the day. In addition to exhibiting Le Matin, Knoedler commissioned a 1889 etching by Lionel Le Couteux, so the image would have remained familiar to New Yorkers even after the exhibition ended (“Jules Breton, Le Matin”). Seeing any of these actual paintings by Jules Breton in 1887 and 1888 would have deepened Melville’s appreciation for the reproduction of Millet’s The Gleaners in the copy he acquired of the 1890 New York edition of Mollett’s book on Millet, Rousseau, and Diaz (CAT 176 PT, fig. 5; Sealts no. 362).
By presenting a full-length frontal portrait of each of the field workers he exhibited in New York in 1888, Breton was idealizing these working women while also showing the brutal hardship of the work they did (a process he had begun with the “haloed” faces of the bent over bodies in The Weeders). He was rightly praised for the poetry as well as the realism of his paintings of gleaners, weeders, and other field workers, and one can image the impression paintings such as these might have made on Melville as he was about to undertake, or continue, a series of poems of about those uncultivated weeds and wildings, natural to the landscape, that are persistently ignored or uprooted by the agricultural expansion of the early industrial age, disposed of as easily as the impoverished workers needed to glean, weed, and remove them. Breton, who died in 1906, never tired of addressing this theme. In 1895 he painted The Last Gleanings, another elegiac painting of women working the field. This painting seemed destined for the future Frick Collection in New York when Henry C. Frick bought it from Knoedler and Company after seeing at their offices in Paris in 1895. Frick loved this painting when he bought it, but he came to love Rembrandt’s extraordinary 1668 self-portrait even more, so in 1906 he returned The Last Gleanings to Knoedler for a $25,000 discount on the Rembrandt he was buying for $225,000 (Saltzman, Old Masters, New World, 163-64, 191-92).
Melville had been highly sensitive to the plight of working women in the industrial age when depicting the young women tethered to the paper-making machine in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” in 1855 (NN PTO 316-335). Even apart from that interest, it seems likely he would have seen some if not all of Breton’s paintings of Weeders and other field workers at the American Art Association in 1887 and at M. Knoedler and Company in 1888. Not only was each of these galleries in his immediate neighborhood, on the southern and western edges of Madison Square Park. They had also become the most visible and influential venues for the exhibition and sale of contemporary French painting in the city. In 1886 the American Art Association sold Jules Breton’s The Communicants for $45,000, then the highest auction price paid for a painting by any living artist. In March of the next year, a month before selling Breton’s The Weeders for $26,600, the American Art Association sold Meissonier’s Friedland for an astonishing $66,000. In 1888, by featuring Jules Breton in a joint show with Eugene Delecroix, Knoedler greatly increased the visibility of each of these artists in New York.
As Melville was newly retired from the Custom House in 1886, and building both his print collection and art library during the last five years of his life, it is natural to think he would have visited high profile galleries such as these so close to his home. This likelihood would have increased by the end of the decade when he was in the habit of taking his granddaughters Eleanor and Frances to Madison Square Park as well as further uptown to Central Park. In fact, his earliest known excursion to Madison Square Park with Frances came in 1887, when she was only 4 years old. This was the famous occasion on which Melville “took Frances to Madison Square Garden—Came home having forgot her. Went back found her” (Leyda, 2: 804). That was the year in which Meissonier’s Friedland and Breton’s The Weeders were on exhibition in successive months at the American Art Association on South Madison Square.