Demont-Breton enjoyed an artistic upbringing and cultivated her talent from an early age. Her father, painter Jules Breton, introduced her to the famed animalier Rosa Bonheur, who became a mentor, role model, and artistic ally. She received an ‘Honorable Mention’ when she exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1880, won medals for her 1881 submission, the present work, and La Plage (1883, location unknown), and a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. In 1894, Demont-Breton was the second woman in France to be awarded the Légion d’honneur, the first being Bonheur.
Just as her father immortalized the agrarian traditions of field workers in rural Courrières, Demont-Breton was fascinated by the sea and found inspiration in the everyday lives of fishermen and their families. Beginning in 1880, she regularly travelled to the seaside hamlet of Wissant, near Calais, where the local villagers and constantly unfolding dramas of maritime life provided her with endless subject matter. Often painting en plein air while standing knee-deep in the surf, the sea and its distant horizon became her stage of choice. Images of children playing, fishermen attending to their boats, ships wrecked in the crashing waves and merchants with their catch are charged with great emotional depth, nearing Symbolist motifs. In paintings such as L’homme est en mer (1889, location unknown and a composition directly adopted by Vincent van Gogh for a painting of the same name, painted while he underwent treatment at an asylum in Saint-Rémy) and Les tourmentés (1906, Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras) women and children are seen gripped by the uncertain return of their husbands and fathers. Her striking and grim composition, Stella Maris (1894, location unknown), showing a wrecked ship’s mast with two bodies entangled on it, is an homage to the great storm of November 1893, which took the lives of ten fisherman, including the fourteen-year-old Jacques Pourre who had previously modeled for the artist.
Conceived in an oil sketch in 1880, Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants presents a heroic view of a fisherman’s wife, emerging from the sea after bathing her children. This monumental composition alludes to Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which had been reimagined by William Bouguereau and exhibited at the Salon of 1879, winning him the Grand Prix de Rome and purchased by the state (now in the Musée d'Orasy, Paris). Fresh in Demont-Breton's imagination, it is not difficult to imagine the Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants is an adaptation of the subject from her own perspective. While Bouguereau's goddess of love, sexuality and fertility is bathed in lustful eroticism as she poses on her seashell in striking contrapposto, Demont-Breton’s subject is decidedly earth-bound. While the compositional parallels are evident, arrival of the fisherman’s wife is not announced by a parade of centaurs, nymphs and putti. Assuming a similar curvature of pose, she carries the heavy weight of two naked children, her arms strong and supportive. Her gaze is fixed to the ground, careful as she steps forward. In contrast to the featherlight top toe of Bouguereau's Venus, the anatomy of her feet is exaggerated, emphasizing their steady weight atop the wet rocks — a contrast which is viscerally felt by the viewer.
Although she spent much of her life in a rural community outside of Paris, Demont-Breton was not a withdrawn artist working in isolation. Instead, she was an outspoken advocate for the rights of female artists at a time when the establishment was hostile towards them, engaging in political discourse and activism. She was the president of the Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs from, and 1895-1901. She fought for the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris to open to women, and won in 1897, granting women the right to study in the Academic setting and granting access to artistic tools, such as life models, previously unavailable.
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