At the Paris Salon
of 1859, 3,045 paintings submitted by 1,278 artists competed for the attention of the visiting crowds. Among the expected historical, biblical, and mythological subjects of the old guard were an increasing number of expressive landscapes and genre paintings of “everyday” life, pointing toward the growing hold of Realism. Hanging between the Salon
staltwarts Delacroix and Corot were four works by Jules Breton, which critics hailed as confirmation of his early potential (Henri Loyrette, “The Salon of 1859,” Origins of Impressionism
, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, pp. 5-7). While three of the four works were large in scale and populated by multiple figures, including what remains among his most iconic paintings, Le Rappel des glaneuses
(Musée d’Orsay, Paris), La petite couturière
is an intimate and quiet composition of a single figure. In the present work, a young woman sits absorbed in her mending, the room undecorated save for two painted ceramics atop a cupboard; the open sewing box, a ball of white thread, and a full basket of fabrics suggest a long task ahead. Interior scenes are relatively rare in the artist’s oeuvre,
and the subject of a woman engaged in domestic work evidences Breton’s appreciation of seventeenth-century Dutch painters. However, its comparatively simple interior, use of cropped picture space, and contrasts of light and shadow, add to the intimacy of the scene, a focus on the model, and the appreciation of her work (Bourrut Lacoutre, p. 52; Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Realist Tradition
, exh. cat., 1982, p. 101). As such La petite couturière
beautifully supports the art theorist Théophile Thoré’s support of domestic life as an important subject for Realist painting. (It was no coincidence that Thoré, a supporter of Breton, is also credited with “rediscovering” Vermeer). Likewise, after attending the Salon
of 1859 the critic Alfred de Montaiglon found evidence that “modern costumes” should be accepted and that contemporary artists should “paint… the subjects of our time. Women in a garden, an intimate chat by the fireside, a visit, a ball, a farewell, a return, in a word all the scenes of life” (Anatole de Montaiglon, “La Peinture au Salon de 1859,” Revue universelle des
arts, April-September 1859, pp. 481-2, as translated and quoted in Loyrette, p. 27). Works like La petite couturière
would build the foundation for the Impressionists to follow: tellingly, early works by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro hung alongside Breton’s in 1859.
While La petite couturière was one of several pictures in the Salon of 1859 that could be used to promote “new” paintings of rural and domestic life, for Breton the themes were less political than personal, and ones which he continued to explore throughout his long career. La petite couturière likely had specific personal associations for the artist: the model was Elodie, his beloved wife, her quiet work conveying the peace and contentment of their home life. This connection between subject, artist, and viewer did not go unnoticed by the greater Salon establishment — La petite couturière was purchased for 1500 francs on April 20, 1859 by the National Lottery Commission, the program created by the Second Empire to make art more accessible to a greater public. Though unfairly dismissed by some critics as being too small, La petite couturière was a smart selection for the Lottery, its easily recognizable subject, both pleasing a new generation of collectors while promoting the nation’s artists (Weisberg, p. 101).