Upon exhibition, La Falaise, like many of Breton’s figural experiments, invited allegorical interpretation. In particular, some Salon visitors attempted to find a patriotic allegory in the artist’s work painted following the 1870 defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian war. Breton, the proclaimed "painter of peasants," actively refused these associations, as evidenced by his response to the critic of Le Français who "in a political article compared France waiting for her King to my Breton woman waiting for her boat!" insisting that with La Falaise "this is not what I was trying to depict" (as quoted in Bourrut Lacouture, p. 151). Rather than a response to current politics, Breton’s focus on the women of Brittany was an important visualization and recognition of the people and the land that he loved. The power of this personal response is keenly felt in the Salon's La Falaise and the present work, with its girl in rustic Breton costume seen in dramatic foreshortening, lying flat against a high-jutting cliff, her distaff forgotten as she gazes at the sea. While the replica is of a smaller scale than the Salon version, the impact is no less powerful, particularly as Breton employs his broadly painted, vigorous naturalistic (almost photorealistic) technique (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 198).
Facing away from the viewer, the Breton girl of La Falaise invited a shared contemplation of the waves and, upon viewing the Salon version, compelled the late nineteenth century avant-garde critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary (supporter of Gustave Courbet and defender of Naturalism), who in the past had found Breton’s peasants somewhat dull, to develop an entire narrative for the youth wandering the coast, accompanied only by the whistling winds and gulls as she contemplates the “void” (as translated, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, Salons (1857-1870), Paris, 1892, vol. 2, p. 110). As with many critics, Castagnary was entranced by the artist’s lack of narrative impulse, believing Breton did not want “to limit our thought by linking it to the thought” of his painted figure, and in his naturalistic depiction of the seas allowed the “blow” of “an invigorating burst of salt air, to remind… that more than once you have been overwhelmed by contemplation, of infinity” (Castagnary, p. 110, 111). Fellow critic Duvergier de Hauranne compared the Breton girl to the monumental Sphinx of Egypt staring off across the desert, believing she, "like it," "is the only actor in the scene and she is part of nature, whose eternal mystery she seems to examine" (Ernst Duvergier de Hauranne, "Le Salon de 1874," Revue des deux mondes, vol. 3, June 1, 1874, p. 621, as translated and quoted in Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, exh. cat., 1982, p. 92). Indeed, as with so many of Breton’s greatest works, the “humble” model against nature was precisely what gave the painting its power. As one writer explained: "Let us not suppose that sentiment and poetic feeling are monopolized by people of education and refinement…often when brought face to face with the beautiful and the sublime in nature, a peasant’s soul is thrilled with the mingled feelings of tenderness and awe" and likewise the viewer "as we gaze from this high eminence upon the apparently infinite ocean we are filled with a sense of its awful grandeur, and are disposed to reveries that come to us only in presence of this sublime spectacle" (Armand Silvestre, "The Cliff," The Gallery of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1884, p. 71).
The Salon version of La Falaise would soon be sold by Goupil (and as recorded in his letter to his brother Theo, eagerly anticipated by Vincent van Gogh in his brief stint working for the firm). It is unknown exactly why the artist chose to paint a smaller version, though it may have been prompted by the warm response to the original. Upon viewing the Salon version, the writer George Defour applauded its profound realism and rustic subject yet bemoaned its scale which he believed required the use of the opposite side of a telescope to fully appreciate its subject, wishing the artist could paint such powerful works on a smaller, easier to live with size (as translated, George Defour, Des Beaux-Arts dans la politique, Paris, 1876, p. 207). And while the replica is nearly entirely faithful to the Salon version, the inclusion of white sails on the horizon is a further reminder that Breton avoided allegorical meaning in his work, and insisted La Falaise's subject was simply a girl waiting for a sailor (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 152).
No matter the motivation, soon after it was painted, the self-taught historian of American art collections and early arbiter of taste, Edward Strahan (the pseudonym for Earl Shinn) discovered Breton’s “important Lookout” in the home of Gov. Royal Chapin Taft, Sr. (1823-1912) in “the rich city of Providence” (Strahan, p. 90). Taft’s wealth and reputation came from his work in the wool trade, in banking, and as director of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, and he was the 39th Governor of Rhode Island. A patron of the arts, Taft also served as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design and member of the Providence Art Club, where the present work was exhibited in 1888. As with so many other new collectors of the era, Taft worked with the preeminent art agent Samuel P. Avery, who was largely responsible for developing Breton’s reputation in America, acquiring La Falaise in 1876, hanging it among works by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, Henri-Joseph Harpignies, and Adolf Schreyer. After Taft’s death, a number of works from his collection were sold by his estate at auction in 1921 where La Falaise was acquired by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge (1882-1973). The youngest child of William Avery Rockefeller, Jr., brother to John D. Rockefeller, Geraldine brought $101 million into her 1907 marriage to Marcellus Hartley Dodge Sr. Rockefeller Dodge developed an impressive art collection, including works by William Bouguereau, Daniel Ridgway Knight, and a number of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s best animal painters (many of which, like the present work, were sold in these rooms in 1976). She is best remembered for her wide-ranging philanthropy, and her love and devotion to dogs (she served as the first woman judge for the Westminster Kennel Club) and her commitment to protecting and caring for strays, founding St. Hubert's Giralda animal rescue organization in 1939.
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