The golden foreground of threshed wheat, with sheaves neatly tied, and the verdant green field under a hazy blue sky of La Glaneuse evocatively illustrate the sensory impact and inspiration of Courrières for Breton. As he explained, the countryside brought "a delicious intoxication as my senses were refreshed by the clean, healthy air… Balm to the eyes, and balm to the soul. I breathed in all the life-giving exhalations that nature breathed out" (Jules Breton, La Vie d’un artiste, Art et Nature, Paris, 1891, p. 211, as translated and quoted in Bourrut Lacouture, p. 79).
The artist’s daily walks through the countryside began early in the morning, where he observed "the dewy wheat its ears leaning over oil poppies," followed by a return later in the day to find in the fields women gleaning, "arriving, sometimes running in happy groups, waving their golden sheaves, or bent over the stubble in tight clusters" (Breton, p. 222, as translated and quoted, Bourrut Lacouture, p. 79). The characteristic curved back posture of women picking up, or gleaning, left behind pieces of wheat is unmistakable in the present work and many of the artist’s major compositions of the decade, including Les glaneuses, Courrières, Pas-de-Calais (1854, National Gallery of Ireland, fig. 1) and Le rappel des glaneuses (1859, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The poorest of the villagers were permitted to glean, but only after the harvest and between sunrise and sunset in unenclosed fields, such as those visible in the present work. Despite the heat of the day and the labor of the fields, Breton’s carefully arranged and graceful gleaners show little exhaustion by their effort, and his characteristically warm and bright palette vivifies the fields and the people working them.
While idealized, Breton’s naturalistic painting forged an immediate connection between artist, subject and viewer. When exhibited in Rouen in 1860, La Glaneuse and its compositional pendant, La Faneuse (1859, National Gallery of Ireland, fig. 2) entranced the writer Fernand Lamay, who proclaimed them both “lovely… particularly for their poetry” (as translated, Lamay, p. 32). The pensive pose of the figure at break from labor was especially noteworthy; one writer suggesting Breton was inspired by Mignon (1836, fig. 3) Ary Scheffer’s widely reproduced painting of Goethe’s gypsy orphan. Lamay believed La Glaneuse reflected the artist’s affection for his subject, while the central figure’s timeless, classicized grace and beauty elevated the composition to "true art" (as translated, Lemay, p. 32). Breton would continue to organize his compositions around a central female figure in following years, transforming harvesters and fieldworkers to icons. At the same time, La Glaneuse also likely held personal resonance for the artist, who through the late 1850s worked to become financially independent from his parents, particularly as he married his love Élodie (their only daughter Virginie, born in 1859, became an accomplished artist in her own right see lots 410 and 411). The bright red poppies visible in the foreground of the present work are emblematic of their relationship, and appear in several other compositions of the period.
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