A popular painter of rustic life and scenes, Jules Breton would become one of the most popular painters of his era. One of his works would auction for a record price paid for the work of a living artist, and he would obtain some of the highest recognition from his country.
His early life did not foretell such a blessed future. Breton's mother died when he was only four, which left him to be raised by the remaining members of the household, including his father and maternal grandmother, as well as his Uncle. From them he learned about rural tradition and a love of the land. His childhood appears to have been happily spent among the fields and gardens of the French countryside, which would later provide Breton's strongest inspiration.
A chance encounter with painter Felix de Vigne helped to get Breton into formal art training, where he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. He then moved on to Antwerp where he spent time studying and copying the work of the great Flemish masters. By 1847 he was in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
It was here that he encountered the Realist painters that would influence his future work. They encouraged him to enter his work into the Paris Salon competitions and his first two were successful, but left Breton frustrated and at a loose end. By 1853 he had realized that his true inspiration came from the memories of his childhood spent in nature and the country, and he began to use those images to fill his canvases. He took it further by incorporating the daily life of the peasants and laborers that populated the countryside, and found his first professional success with "The Gleaners", a painting depicting the plight of the least fortunate who survived off the leftovers from the harvest. He won a third class medal at the Paris Salon for the painting.
From that point on the artist became more and more popular, continuing to exhibit images of rural and peasant life, but also incorporating more religious imagery into some of his work. Generally he is considered a Realist painter and his dominant subject matter is around labor and rest as well as rural and religious celebrations or festivals.
His career spanned almost sixty years, and his life was closely linked to those depicted in his paintings - a simple country life of balance and peace. He spent his final years in his garden studio, and died in 1906.