La lecture earned acclaim from the moment it was delivered to the Palais de l’Industrie’s storage room. As the artist bashfully admitted to his wife Élodie, from government officials to fellow artists, “everyone seems to be agreed that my gleaners and my little… [La lecture] are much better than anything I have done hereto” (as quoted in Bourrut Lacouture, p. 124). La lecture depicts an older man sitting in an armchair, chin resting on his walking stick as he dutifully listens to a young woman’s reading, her pursuit of the perfect volume suggested by the discarded pile of books on the floor. While interior scenes like La lecture are relatively rare in Breton’s oeuvre, the subject of a young woman engaged in domestic activity evidenced his longstanding appreciation of seventeenth-century Dutch painting (critic Félix Jahyer likened the work to those by Golden Age genre painter Frans van Mieris). The composition also likely held personal resonance for the artist, as the man is modeled after his cousin Isidore Lecorcq, who appears in his early masterpiece Plantation d'un calvaire (1858, Palais des beaux-arts, Lille), while the dried poppy stalks set in a niche by the fireplace in the present work recall the stems “Zidore” braided into whips for the artist when he was a boy (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 124). As demonstrated by an early compositional sketch for La lecture, the young woman was originally less elegantly posed and sitting in a more rustic room; the refinements to the reader’s elegant profile in the finished work prompted critics to call her the “angel of the house” (fig. 2). The sanctity of the domestic space is further highlighted by the ceramic sculpture of the Virgin and Child set high on the mantel (leading some to believe the girl is reading the Bible). The quiet simplicity of the space and the artist’s naturalistic technique in painting the figures stand in contrast to the statuesque fieldworkers of his agrarian works like La fin de la journée, in which the two central gleaners are configured as ennobled classical figures. In La lecture’s subdued colors and carefully chosen details Breton revealed a connection between the artist, subject and the viewer. Interpreting the scene, his contemporaries thought its mix of real and ideal conveyed a message of the passage of time or the importance of a peaceful home.
Despite the accolades, Breton did not win the gold medal for either of his Salon submissions of 1865. As he explained, “I do not think that I have produced a masterpiece, but I cannot stop others from using the word — it rings so loudly in the ears of envious souls” (as quoted in Bourrut Lacouture, p. 125). Breton points to the conflicts of interest prevalent in the Salon jury, made up of fellow artists who essentially were judging the works of their competitors. Likely for this reason, the year’s top prize was given to the “safe choice” of Alexandre Cabanel and his very traditional portrait of Napoleon III. Ironically, Napoleon purchased La fin de la journée for 10,000 francs, while Monsieur de Maingoval bought La Lecture for 5,000 (and later lent it to the Exposition Universelle of 1867, where Breton would finally win a medal of the première classe). Ultimately public appreciation was what mattered most for the artist, who believed “I was the recipient of an even greater ovation because the public did not agree with the jury’s choice” (as quoted in Bourrut Lacouture, p. 125).
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