Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton (1827-1906)
The Gleaners, 1854
Oil on canvas, 93 x 138 cm
Presented, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, 1950
Jules Breton painted scenes of contemporary provincial life, stressing the humble dignity of peasants in their labour. He generally censored the harsh realities of life from his paintings, however, thereby making them less threatening and more acceptable to the official authorities.
The Gleaners is set in Breton's native Courrières (the village is depicted in the distance, its curious tapering church tower breaking the horizon line), and in it he used his future wife Elodie as the model for the standing figure beside the small boy in the foreground. Both choices indicate Breton's personal approach to the time-honoured custom of gleaning the remnants of wheat harvest.
He was recording a tradition that he had seen practised many times in Courrières - a back-breaking task, but one where he saw dignity and nobility in the toil of the labourers, epitomised in the strength and noble grace of Elodie's figure. The subject was topical: in 1854 the rights of gleaners were debated in the French Senate. Breton exhibited the picture at the Salon that year, where it was exceptionally well received.