The meadow, where the brown cows always graze,
Undulates like a lake of grass up to the dunes,
That a marvelous sky bathes at the foot of the rosy atmosphere.
An exquisite dew makes the short grass iridescent.
Grazed incessantly by the numerous herds
And puts a halo in front of the beasts whose skins
Shine in the places that a shaft of flame sets fire to.
Dazzled by light, a stream of gold curves
Amidst the silvery grass in the morning mist.
Winding more and more near vibrant distance
And descending motionless, an invisible slope.
A shepherd is lost there in a deep dream
On the bank of the stream all scented with mint.
Under the confused torment of a worry that ferments
To the fruitful sun whose head bites his brow
Because the shepherdess comes, over there near the other bank
The young man, his eyes tense, his feet listless.
Placed at a right angle like a dejected marsh wader,
Admiring how freely and calmly she arrives.
She comes, her reflection trembles in the stream;
And from the waves and the wind her petite body trembles.
Two images in the midst of a sudden shower
Of thousands of golden rays in a double beam.
And, here it is, under your spell, o morning splendor
That the rosy love mounts at his reddening front.
In his heart, like in the sky, vibrates the dawning fire,
Illuminating the day and the virginal ardor.
They shut their eyes, and the boy
No longer sees the sun with its streaming rays.
All becomes unimportant before this woman’s face,
And the radiance; conqueror of his attentions!
Jules Breton, on the occasion of Le Matin’s exhibition at the Salon of 1883
At once an idyllic landscape and a narrative told with striking emotional depth, the atmospheric tour-de-force of Le Matin displays all of the qualities for which Jules Breton is most celebrated.
In Le Matin, the early sun’s shattered rays cast long shadows across the vast grassy plain, through mist rising from the dew covered fields and smoke from the chimneys on the horizon. Its golden glow reflects off of the calm winding stream to illuminate the two young shepherds standing on opposite shores. As Annette Bourrut Lacouture writes: “The sentiment of the painting is expressed with great modesty, the barrier of water facilitating the discreet expression of burgeoning love. The simplicity of the figures, the broad spread of the landscape and the subtle, penetrating light give this work an echo of Millet” (Bourrut Lacouture, p. 210). Breton’s career coincided with that of Jean-François Millet, thirteen years his senior, and Vincent van Gogh referred to them both as “voices of the wheat.” Breton greatly admired Millet’s treatment of the landscape and effects of light at various times of day. Indeed, the dramatic backlighting of the rising sun in Le Matin may have been inspired by works like Shepherdess with her Flock (circa 1863, Musée d’Orsay) and Keeper of the Herd (1871, Art Institute of Chicago, fig. 1), which emphasize the sun’s rays at the horizon, placing the figures in silhouette against a bright sky that scatters shadows into the picture’s foreground. According to his wife Élodie's diary, Le Matin was conceived in February 1883. He used a drawing realized during a summer stay in the region of Cucq, near Étaples, to roughly paint a close approximation to the final composition, with large shadows brought by the bright and diffuse morning rays, delicately highlighting the expression of silhouettes against the light.
While Millet was sensitive to the labors that his rural subjects endured, Breton chose to emphasize their harmony with the land. His preoccupation with life in the fields was inspired by his early upbringing when he witnessed the cycles of hay gathering and planting that took place in the fields near his home. As he matured as an artist, Breton’s world of reference was enlarged and he became aware of past painters who captured rustic field scenes, including the idyllic compositions of the Swiss Romantic Léopold Robert – whose compositions inspired some of Breton’s most effective themes. Robert depicted scenes that supported a utopian vision, further emphasized as by his writings, treating his subjects as secular idols at work in an Arcadian land. In the 1870s and 1880s, interest in rural life had spread to many other painters, and members of the Impressionist group, especially Camille Pissarro, took their easels to the fields. Scenes were selected because they suggested not only an awareness of actual field labor, but intense parallels with religious themes of enlightenment and ascension. Peasants were equated with the chosen few – their work helped create a spiritual ambience in the newly sanctified fields.
Breton found success through combining a near mythologizing view of his subject with a devotion to Naturalism. He filled his paintings with beautiful shepherdesses, harvesters and gleaners, who are defined by an almost perfect harmony of color, composition and light, but the attitudes of his peasants were acutely observed, as evidenced in the faces and posture of each figure in Le Matin. Élodie names Henri Flanquart as one of the models from Courrières, who worked at the brewery. In a letter dated February 20, 1912, Virginie Demont Breton wrote of her father’s subjects: “The country people aged quickly, and my father who had a fondness for certain types which he found, often painted people of various generations from the same family. He chose them at a time when he considered them at the height of their beauty and character.”
As can be seen from the exhaustive list of reviews and accolades from its presentation at the Salon of 1883, Le Matin enjoyed widespread admiration, further popularized through a photogravure published by Goupil. The spare and emotive composition set at daybreak anticipates the exquisite spirit of The Song of the Lark (1884, Art Institute of Chicago, fig. 2), which Breton presented at the Salon the following year. It has enjoyed fame among audiences ever since and was once voted “America’s most popular painting” by a poll conducted by Chicago Daily News. Taken together, these two paintings are a testament to Breton's enduring ability to captivate audiences through his uniquely poetic oeuvre.
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