JULES BRETON (French, 1827-1906)
Enfant de chœur
signed with the artist's initials 'J.B.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
1418 x 1034 in. (35.9 x 27.3 cm.)
Painted in 1856.
The artist.
Donated by the above to a charity auction.
Peter Alfred Gross (1849–1914), Paris, before 1905.
Guilford G. Hartley (1853-1922), Duluth, MN, acquired directly from the above, March or April 1905.
Irma Hartley Claypool (1887-1989) Duluth, MN, his daughter, by descent.
By descent to the present owner.
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Lot Essay

Jules Breton’s first official recognition as an artist came in 1855 for The Gleaners. Further awards followed for The Blessing of the Wheat in Artois (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras) in 1857 which earned him a silver medal at the Salon and was purchased by the French State (fig. 1). The present painting is a sketch for the figure of the altar boy holding the censer in the center of the painting.
It was Breton’s usual practice to execute a preparatory oil sketch of the principal figures of his finished paintings. The fact that many of these sketches were signed is evidence that Breton considered them works of art in their own right. It is also likely that some sketches were done as remembrances of completed canvases rather as studies for them. Late in his career, Breton even exhibited a small number of oil sketches and drawings at the Universal Expositions and on a few occasions, at the Salon.
Executed in swift, heavy brushstrokes laden with pigment, Enfant de chœur demonstrates Breton’s prodigious abilities as a colorist. Mere daubs of paint in green, red and brilliant white create the image of the young boy holding the holy censer by a chain, gripped carefully with both hands. He stands alone in the sketch; there is no indication of the bishop and other priests behind him as they appear in the finished work. Breton has worked the background to reflect only landscape, with broad strokes of green to depict the clover in the field and a darkened upper half to indicate the dark robes of the line of priests behind the boy. The artist here concentrates all on the figure of the child, and with a few deft strokes catches the essence of the sunlight on his white vestments and the reflections of light on the silver censer.
In the oil sketches, Breton demonstrates a spontaneity not apparent in the finished paintings and in many, such as Enfant de chœur, the artist uses the same color juxtapositions and short, choppy brushstrokes in a technique close to that of the Impressionists. The thick, vigorous impasto, the concentration on color harmonies and the effects of light indicate that Breton, when relying solely upon his intuitive response to nature, could create vibrant sketches that in atmosphere and execution suggest ties with the more adventuresome landscape artists of the century.
Throughout the ensuing decades, Breton received numerous awards and critical acclaim for his work and his paintings found a ready market both in Europe and abroad. His paintings were particularly sought-after in America after the Civil War, and he quickly became the most popular of French artists across the Atlantic. In 1877, Samuel G. W. Benjamin wrote that ‘popular and artistic opinion is more united in favor of the merits of Jules Breton than upon any other living painter’ (S. G. W. Benjamin, Contemporary Art in Europe, New York, 1877, p. 92).
American collectors felt an affinity for Breton’s work and particularly in his choice of subject matter. Breton’s field workers and peasants embodied a respect and reverence for nature and the fact that his subjects appeared to exist in a classless society was appealing to the democratic sensibilities of American collectors. In 1866, Breton broke the record for a price paid for a painting, and this established and distinguished record also appealed to Americans. Breton was also a well-respected poet and writer, and this long list of artistic and literary credentials added to his bona fides.
We are grateful to Annette Bourrut Lacouture for confirming the authenticity of this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Jules Breton catalogue raisonné. The work is also accompanied by a letter from the artist to Peter Alfred Gross confirming the work's authenticity, dated 28 February 1905 (fig. 2).

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