The two paintings under consideration, Van Gogh’s Women Picking Olives, and Breton’s The Weeders, have much in common, despite choosing dramatically different techniques, reflecting a change of approach, but achieving equally lovingly appreciative results.
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These works, roughly 20 years apart in time of creation, are similar in that they portray women engaged in agricultural labor, with affection and appreciation for the people as well as the landscape. They are very different in their emphasis on representation and their technique. Both evoke a season, a place, and a whole occupation and way of life, effectively.
Jules Breton’s painting was painted in 1868, meaning that the artist was roughly 42 years of age, a mature age for the era. He was born in 1827, in the second generation dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolution.
France was still struggling to handle the challenge of civil self-government after all the violence of previous decades. Breton came to adulthood during the rule of Napoleon III, who did expand the vote, although there were still great class and economic divisions in society 1.
The subject of The Weeders, an oil on canvas, is the very class of people who were most oppressed in the ancient regime, peasant laborers . A group of six women, dressed simply in coarse clothing and head scarves, crawl, kneel, stoop and rest in a flat field.
They pull small weeds from among the low-growing crop in the light of what, logically, must be a dawning sun. Their forms are all well-rounded suggesting that they are well-fed. Their faces are suggested with some hints of beauty.
In the background are other weed pickers, similarly occupied. The skies are filled with small rosy clouds and a crescent moon. There is nothing between them and the horizon except a few trees.
The style is realistic, in that the viewer has no doubt that the object in the picture are human figures, female, and that they are standing on the ground in a real landscape. In this, Breton hearkens back to the academic realism of earlier decades. However, it is impossible not to infer some influence from the movement which had resulted in the Salon des Refuses in 1863.
For example, the subject matter is not the heroic subject matter of the past: generals, battle scenes , nobility, citizen heroes, and religious scenes or moral allegories. Instead, the subject matter is the everyday, the ordinary, the scenes that anyone could see along any road.
Additionally, the angle at which the viewer sees the subjects is also not the distant, all-seeing, all-knowing studio vantage point of previous decades. The angle of view is like that of a photographer crouching down at the level of the laborers. They ignore their observer in the painting, but when Breton observed them, the subjects would have had to be able to see him.
Their obliviousness suggests that either the scene was originally captured with the fledgling technology of photography, or set up in the artist’s studio, or represents a genius memory for shadow and positioning on the part of the artist. Breton emphasizes the horizontality of his scene, and the sense of being at the same level as the subjects by stretching the width of the canvas, which is 28×50 inches.
The tradition of academic painting called for a flawless surface where brushstrokes were invisible to the eye. That is not true entirely in The Weeders. Especially in the sky, the brushstrokes are visible.
The colors are muted, which recalls the academic tradition, but this fits with the near darkness at daybreak in which the women do their work. However, the artist has managed to illuminate the faces of the laborers with the low-level light from the rising sun. This gives them a dignity that is consonant with his pattern of honoring French rural life with his paintings 2.
The Women Picking Olives, by Van Gogh, is dated at about two decades later . In the 1880s, the Impressionist movement, arguably formalized with an 1872 exhibition, had had nearly two decades for artists and their aficionados to get used to the new way of seeing. This is reflected in Van Gogh’s choices, and in the fact that he showed the painting to Gaugin, who approved of it 3.
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The painting is narrower at 28×36, and the orientation is more vertical. The scene is analogous to that in The Weeders; the work of agricultural laborers. The three equally simply dressed women are doing similar heavy labor, up on ladders or standing on the grass.
The time of day is not instantly apparent, because we don’t see the sun or moon. The color scheme of the entire picture is relatively muted, or perhaps sun-bleached. Van Gogh apparently made several versions of this scene, each with a slightly varying choice of color intensities 4 .
This particular one, in the Metropolitan Museum, has low contrast between the lavender grey of the grass, the sage green of the leaves, and the peachy-pink of the sky. However upon closer inspection, the pink color of the sky seems perhaps to be, as in the Breton painting, an indication of dawn or dusk.
A very close inspection reveals that there is a golden band of color at the horizon, probably representing the glow of the sun as it rises above the horizon. Since olives grow only in the hottest, sunniest areas, dawn makes more sense for this kind of strenuous, finicky work.
What distinguishes this painting most obviously is the difference in technique. Van Gogh is demonstrating a very different approach to portraying a parallel scene filled with ground, sky, plants, and people.
His brushwork is obvious, and in fact it appears that a single curving brushstroke makes up, or almost makes up, each branch or a trunk of the gnarled and ancient-looking olive trees. In the orchard that Van Gogh painted, it is quite possible that the trees were a century old, perhaps more, and pruned into the tortured and twisted shapes shown in the painting, by the actions of many generations of arborists.
It looks as though each blade of the long grass is another individual swirling brushstroke. This pattern is repeated right up into the sky, with the clouds also made up of crescent shaped brushstrokes in mixed colors of pink and white. This repetition makes the picture almost an abstraction because, in real life, every tree, every branch, every person has its own unique texture.
However, the uniform brushstrokes and even the direction that the brushstrokes follow (bottom right to upper left), make a statement about the unity of the plants, the sky, and the small figures working in them. The identity of the people in the Breton painting could, conceivably, be confirmed if one had a photo or another painting of any of the models.
On the other hand, this is not possible with the Van Gogh. His models are one step away from being blobs of color and shape. They are symbolic of the laborer as an idea, rather than being individuals with names, faces, lives, and dreams or complaints about their lives.
To compare them is to see painting at two different moments in its development. Breton is moving away from realism and obsessive attempts to duplicate the appearance of reality in every detail no matter how small. He is moving away from art as a recorder of the elite, the aristocratic or the politically important.
Van Gogh is firmly moving towards the direction of an equally obsessive attempt to capture the impression, the squint-eyed, blurry-vision overall glimpse of a scene. This is the goal of the Impressionists, and Van Gogh was clearly pursuing it.
The two paintings both attempt to represent reality, as the artist saw it. The two paintings preserve the elements in the scene that the artist value most and wish to convey. However, Van Gogh has elected to suppress detail in preference for shape and color and the impression of movement, perhaps of a dawn tide of wind. In this, he is in a completely different school of technique from his elder.
Both paintings are vivid evocations of a way of life that was to change drastically over the next generation, as people moved to cities and industry took over the landscape. Both paintings represent the labor itself as dignified, worthy of being the subject of the most careful, affectionate, and accomplished portrayal.
Breton, Jean-Jacques. «Pompous Pompiers.» Franco Maria Ricci SpA May/June 2009: 1-22. Web.
Clayson, Hollis. «“Some Things Bear Fruit”? Witnessing the Bonds between Van Gogh and Gauguin.» Art Bulletin 84. 4 (2002). Web.
Lacouture, Annette Bourrut et Gabriel P. Weisberg. «Jules Breton.» 2012. Oxford Art Online. Web.
Lacouture, Annette Bourrut. Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Web.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. «The Weeders.» 2012. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
—. «Women Picking Olives.» 2012. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.
The two men shared ideas and even shared a residence for about two months.