Lot 4
  • 4

Jules Breton

120,000 - 180,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • Jules Breton
  • Fileuse
  • signed Jules Breton and dated 1870 (lower right)
  • oil on canvas
  • 32 by 25 3/8 in.
  • 81.2 by 64.4 cm


Probably, Samuel P. Avery, New York (acquired directly from the artist, 1870, sold, and taken back to stock by 1888)
Private Collector, New York (and sold, Parke-Bernet, New York, January 12, 1955, lot 47)
Private Collector (acquired at the above sale)


Paris, Salon, 1870, no. 376


Marius Chaumelin, L'Art contemporain, Paris, 1873, p. 434
Castagnary, Salons, 1857-1879, Paris, 1892, vol. 1, p. 421
Georges Lafenestre, L'Art vivant, La Peinture et la Sculpture aux Salons de 1868 à 1877, Paris, 1881, p. 173-4
D. Deloche, Les Peintres de la Bretagne avant Gauguin, unpublished dissertation, Université de Rennes, 1975, vol. 2, p. 738-9, illustrated p. 739
Madeleine Fidell-Beaufort, "Jules Breton in America: Collecting in the 19th Century," in Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, 1982, p. 60, no. 6
Annette Bourrut Lacouture, Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Musée des beaux-arts, Arras, Musée des beaux-arts, Quimper, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, exh. cat., Paris, 2002, p. 50


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This work has been recently restored. The canvas has an old lining. The paint layer is hard to read under ultraviolet light, but there are retouches around her ankles and feet. There are also a couple of isolated spots of retouching in the background, but the bulk of the figure is very well preserved. Although the paint layer is quite thin in her face, there are no retouches here. The painting itself is in beautiful state and should be hung in its current condition.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

As a result of government-sponsored ethnographic studies in the nineteenth century, Brittany, France's northwestern province, was deemed a rustic, if not entirely archaic, region; its people held firmly to the language, religion and cultural traditions of their sixth century Celtic ancestors. This inspired throngs of travelers curious to experience the uniquely preserved culture firsthand.  One such visitor was Jules Breton, who visited Brittany for the first time in 1865, staying in and around the Baie de Douarnenez, notable for its tuna and sardine fisheries (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 177-9).  During his stays, the artist explored the sandy beaches, observing washerwomen and other hard working peasants, and recording their daily tasks in classically inspired arrangements on larger canvases.  Yet, Breton was equally compelled by verdant, inland Douarnenez, with its rough-hewn granite houses set beside dark lanes weaving through deep thickets and it is in this environment of filtered sunlight and rich greens that Breton places his Fileuse, the seated woman easily identifiable as Jeanne Clavet, a sardine processor, and Breton’s frequent model of the period. Clavet’s distinct profile, represents what Breton called the “Gallo Roman type so beloved of Michelangelo” and is the same that he found in many of the women of Douarnenez (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 143).  A drawing and oil study for the present work show a similar figure, with a serene expression and looking down towards one hand, from which a spindle dangles, while the other supports a distaff wrapped with flax, the figure’s feet modestly crossed.  The refined simplicity of the pose connects the French peasant with traditional depictions of meditation, an idea further supported by the artist’s sketchbooks of 1865-72, in which he drew the Virgin Mary in an identical pose to the present model. Such theological allusions are unusual in Breton’s work, yet Fileuse’s iconographic pose reflects both his early Academic training and his interest in connecting the real with the ideal in his Brittany subjects, elevating humble, everyday activities with a larger significance.  The effect is further supported by Breton’s compositional format, which places the isolated model in the immediate foreground, affording her iconic stature (a choice the artist continued throughout the 1870s and beyond). 

Fileuse made an immediate impact upon its exhibition at the Paris Salon of 1870.  The Athenaeum’s critic wrote “ there is deep thought and much tenderness in the brooding expression of her features.  The color is beautiful, rich, and grave, the style fine and noble; and on the whole, we covet this picture” (“The Salon, Paris, 1870,” The Athenaeum, no. 2224, June 11, 1870, p. 778).   After the close of the Salon, discovering Fileuse’s next location remains elusive.  However, a brief mention in an 1889 journal suggests the painting was acquired by Samuel P. Avery, the powerful art agent responsible for linking many American collectors directly with European artists (“Art Notes,” The Epoch, vol. IV, no. 104, February 1, 1889, p. 477).  Avery met Breton at the Exposition universelle of 1867 and commissioned his first work from the artist, A Brittany Shepherdess, which was soon hung in New Jersey Central Railroad president John Taylor Johnston's New York private gallery on Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue.  The canvas attracted the attention of collectors, both private and institutional, who directed considerable influence and money to secure a good position on Breton's growing waiting list (Fidell-Beaufort, p. 55).   Fileuse was precisely the type of work by Breton that Avery eagerly sought and his clients actively demanded, and was likely the same painting he offered to the trustees of William Corcoran’s gallery, as Avery believed it to be a painting of “fine healthy art” that would enrich the viewing public. Breton’s only other submission to the Salon of 1870,  Les Lavandières des côtes de Bretagne (sold in these rooms, April 24, 2009, lot 85), was soon acquired by the Honorable Edwin Denison Morgan (who in the 1850s and 60s served as New York governor and senator) making it, and likely Fileuse, among the first major works by the artist to enter American collections.  Despite the importance of Fileuse to Breton’s burgeoning career, it has remained largely untraced for more than 120 years, appearing only once before at auction in 1955 and illustrated today for the first time in color, affording an opportunity to reexamine an essential period of the artist’s development.