Lot 8
  • 8

Jules Breton

500,000 - 700,000 USD
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  • Jules Breton
  • Les communiantes
  • signed Jules Breton and dated 1884 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 48 5/8 by 75 3/8 in.
  • 123.5 by 191.5 cm


Samuel P. Avery (acquired directly from the artist in 1884)
Mary J. Morgan (acquired from the above in 1884 and sold; her sale, American Art Association, New York, 1886, lot 235)
Donald A. Smith, later Lord Strathcona, Montreal and London (acquired at the above sale)
Thence by descent through the family (until 1988)
Sale: Christie's, London, June 24, 1988, lot 86, illustrated
Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, Toronto (acquired at the above sale)
Sale: Sotheby's, New York, May 23, 1996, lot 45, illustrated
Acquired at the above sale 


Paris, Salon, 1884, no. 355
Montreal, 1887
London, Guildhall, 1898, no. 20
Perth, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, 1947-1988, on extended loan
Newcastle upon Tyne, Polytechnic Art Gallery; Sheffield, Mappin Art Gallery; Paisley, Paisley Art Gallery; Aberdeen, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Peasantries: 19th Century French and British Pictures of Peasants and Field Workers, October 10, 1981 - March 27, 1982
Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, 1982-1983, no. 45
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal, Le goût de l'art: les collectionneurs montréalais: 1880-1920, December 1989-February 1990, no. 5


Bilingske Tildende, Copenhagen, April 30, 1884
Daily Telegraph, London, May 1, 1884
Darcel, Le Journel de Rouen, May 3, 1884
Dictionnaire Véron, May 7, 1884 
Hustin, Le Moniteur des Arts, May 8, 1884
La Presse Illustrée, May 11, 1884
El Impartial Boulevardier, Madrid, May 12, 1884
Montlandry, La Dépêche, Lille, May 15, 1884
Durcos, Le Sémaphore, Marseille, May 16, 1884
Queen, London, May 17, 1884
Darcours, Journal Illustré, May 18, 1884
Le Francais, May 19, 1884
The Scotsman, May 21, 1884
The Academy
, May 24, 1884, p. 410
L'Univers Illustré, May 26, 1884
"The Salon, Paris," The Athenaeum, May 31, 1884, p. 702
Henri Houssaye, Le Salon de 1884, Revue des deux Mondes, May-June 1884, p. 581-2
Kölnische Zeitung, Cologne, June 3, 1884
The Times, London, June 3, 1884, p. 8
L'Art Moderne, Brussels, June 8, 1884
Besnos, Salon des Artistes de 1884, July 11, 1884
"The Paris Salon," The Art Journal, 1884, p. 223
Paul Mantz, "Le Salon: IV," Le Temps, May 1884
The London Times, June 3, 1884, p. 8
Emmanuel Ducros, "Jules Breton," L'Artiste, September 1885, p. 223-4
Emile Durand-Greville, "L'Art aux États-Unis," Gazette des Beaux Arts, XXIV, September 1886, p. 449
Lionel G. Robinson, "French Art," The Art Journal, London, March 1886, p. 66, illustrated
Clarence Cook, Art and Artists of our Time, New York, 1888, p. 237
Clara Harrison Stranahan, A History of French Paintings from its Earliest to its Latest Practice, New York, 1888, p. 383-5
Mélodie Stevens, "Le chant des communiantes," Bordeaux Journal, November 12, 1892
Garnet Smith, "Jules Breton: Painter of Peasants," The Magazine of Art, no. 16, 1893, p. 412, illustrated p. 415
Les Journal des Arts, July 14, 1894, the Fouillon engraving illustrated
Pierre Gauthiez, "Un Peintre écrivaint: Jules Breton," Revue de l'art ancien et moderne, vol. 4, Paris, 1898, p. 210-3, illustrated 
Doucet, La chanson des choses, Paris 1899, illustrated p. 211
Robert de la Sizeranne, 'Les paysans au Salon de 1899," Revue des Deux Mondes, vol. 153, May 1899, p. 421
Marius Vachon, Jules Breton, Paris, 1899, p. 101-2, 145, illustrated p. 69
Annales Politiques et Littéraires, May 24, 1903, no. 1039, p. 321, 328
Auguste Marguillier, "Review of 'Jules Breton' by Marius Vachon," Gazette des beaux-arts, 1899, no. 21, p. 86-8
Jules Breton, La Peinture, Paris, 1904, p. 38-41
"Breton," Masters in Art, Boston, 1907, pp. 39, 41, illustrated pl. 7
Aaron Schaffer, "Jules Breton, Parnassien," Modern Language Notes, Baltimore, vol. 47, December 1932, p. 512
Kenneth McConkey, Peasantries, exh. cat., Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1981, p. 23, illustrated fig. 13 and pl. 1
Hollister Sturges, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, 1982, p. 99, no. 46, illustrated p. 101
Annette Bourrut Lacouture, "'Les Communiantes' (1884) de Jules Breton et le thème de la procession: genèse d'une oeuvre d'après des documents inédits," Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de l'art Français, Paris, 1985, p. 175-200, illustrated p. 276
Annette Bourrut Lacouture, Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Museée des beaux-arts, Arras, Museée des beaux-arts, Quimper, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, exh. cat., Paris, 2002, p. 195-6, illustrated p. 194 


The following condition report was kindly provided by Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc.: This work is restored and is in beautiful condition. There is no abrasion. There are no structural damages. Under ultraviolet light, one can see remnants of old varnish here and there, but the work does not necessarily need to be cleaned further. There are hardly any retouches. There are a few spots in the boy standing on the far left. There are a few spots of retouching in the bottom of the cloak worn by the mother in the center; these are probably cosmetic and do not seem to address any real damage. There are also a few spots of retouching in the cheek of the young woman being kissed by her grandmother and in the grandfather on the far right. This is a particularly complex and large work by the artist, and it is in remarkable 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

At the beginning of the nineteenth century grand Salon submissions of religious subjects were encouraged, reinforced by the monarchy’s mutual support of church and state. Breton had tried his hand at large religious canvases while he was a student, including Saint Piat prêchent dans les Gaules (1846), an unfinished Chemin de Croix (1847) and Baptême de Christ (1851), all of which have since disappeared (Bourrut Lacouture, 1983, p. 176), but as the French political environment changed, so did the expectations of official artists. Large biblical narratives were abandoned by artists who instead sought to represent the Divine through humanity and the everyday (see lot 13). To this end, the representation of working people in rural France, and especially their religious rituals, pageants and processions, took on a special significance. If the abrupt and radical Realism of Gustave Courbet’s 1850 Salon submission, Burial at Ornans (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) did not ignite a broader movement in Realist art, it can be used, retrospectively, as a mid-century pivot point that happens to coincide with the initiation of Breton’s formidable career as an artist. Reexamination of Breton’s oeuvre, accolades and commercial success reveals that he was answering the call of the Realist and Naturalist movements while simultaneously participating in the Academic system, and Les communiantes gives clear evidence.

As the self-proclaimed "peasant who paints peasants," Jules Breton achieved recognition from his first Salon entry in 1849, and quickly earned recognition from his peers including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Constant Troyon and Vincent Van Gogh, among others.  Breton’s inspiration came from the real working people of rural France, and he achieved great commercial success by imbuing his subject with a certain amount of the ideal. Throughout his career, the theme of religious traditions allowed him to explore the spiritual heart of rural communities, notably in Brittany and Courrières, where he lived. One of the earliest paintings to explore the subject of communicants is Les Premières Communiantes à Courrières (circa 1860, Musée du Petit Palais, Paris, fig. 1), and foreshadows his inclination to the present subject which would be conceived more than twenty years later in response to a commission from the influential American agent, Samuel P. Avery.

Avery was critical in exposing American audiences to European Art in the second half of the nineteenth century, importing major works by Ernest Meissonier, Charles-François Daubigny and William Bouguereau, among others, and he provided Breton with many sales and commissions on behalf of collectors. Breton’s rural laborers appealed to American tastes and sensibilities for a number of reasons, chief among them was that they “appear to exist in a harmonious and classless society that was appealing in a country that prided itself on a democratic tradition” (Fiddell-Beaufort, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition, p. 51). Additionally, with many accolades and Salon medals to his name, the value and merit of his work was seen as indisputable. As a consequence, many of the artist’s most significant compositions were brought across the Atlantic, including Peasant Girl Knitting under a Tree (1870, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), End of the Working Day (Fin du travail) (1886, Brooklyn Museum, see lot 2), Song of the Lark (1884,  Art Institute of Chicago), The Weeders and The Vintage at Chateau Lagrange (1860 and 1864, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha) among others.

In a letter from May 4, 1882, in which he thanks Breton for Le Soir dans les Hameaux du Finistère (1882, The Paine Art Center, Oshkosh, Wisconsin), Avery commissioned a large composition with one, two or three figures, offering 50,000 francs. Once the artist accepted, he added on December 8: “I have so much confidence in your genius I am convinced that you will create a masterpiece, and want to leave you free to do what interests you most” (as quoted in Bourrut-Lacouture, p. 194). To show his enthusiasm for this creative freedom, and to quell Avery’s impatience, Breton sent him a letter on November 8, 1883, describing a summer spent sketching and preparing for the present work, which he expected to be among his most important paintings with “eight principal figures and fifteen in the background,” as well as his intention to include it in the Salon of 1884 (Bourrut-Lacouture, p. 194). The painting was carefully developed, as attested  by the many known preparatory drawings and oil sketches that exist, as well as descriptions of his process in his wife Elodie’s diaries. While Breton would have been aware of the success of other Salon submissions on the theme of Communion, such as Bastien-Lepage’s La Communiante (1875, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, fig. 2) and Henri Gervex’s La première Communion à l’eglise de la Trinité (1877, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon), he gives a broader view of the spiritual procession, affording full consideration to the atmosphere, the natural and built environment, as well as people engaged in various roles. It is a spring morning, with lilacs in bloom and birds fluttering above the village’s thatched roofs. The crisp sunlight casts shadows through the village, and illuminates the procession of children in white gossamer veils as they wind their way through the village towards the church. One critic, writing for the Art Journal on the subject of the 1884 Salon, hailed Les communiantes as “perhaps the finest work in the exhibition… In the detail, the characterization, the perfect technique, the harmonious and varied coloration, and above all in the feeling, this picture is especially fine” ("The Paris Salon," Art Journal, p. 223)

As promised, Avery purchased the painting for 50,000 francs, and then promptly sold it to Mary J. Morgan for $12,000. As one contemporary journalist put it: “What the most fabulous art dealer, what the most self-important artist asked, she paid without wincing” (Charles de Kay, “An American Gallery,” The Magazine of Art, 1886, p. 248). Two years later, at her auction on May 3 – 5, 1886, the work was purchased by Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, president of the Bank of Montreal, for $45,000 — a sum representing the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist at the time.