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Young Women Going to a Procession

On view

Young Women Going to a Procession

Artist: Jules A. Breton (French, 1827 - 1906)

Date: c. 1888
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 49 1/2 × 69in. (125.7 × 175.3cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Jules Breton / 1888'
Credit Line: Proctor Collection
Object number: PC. 10
Label Text
The French artist Jules Breton enjoyed considerable acclaim during his lifetime for his idealized paintings of French peasantry. Towards the end of the nineteenth century his reputation rivaled such now-esteemed painters as Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Dominique Ingres. In the United States, prominent Gilded Age collectors such as William H. Vanderbilt, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, John Taylor Johnston and William T. Walters collected his pictures. The trans-Atlantic appeal of his scenes of pre-industrialized French rural life, with their well-drawn figures and conservative brushwork, are best understood as a traditional or even nostalgic foil to the avant-garde works that Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists pained at the same time.

Late in 1896, Rachel and Frederick Proctor saw Young Girls Going to a Procession when it was displayed in New York City at the prestigious commercial art gallery, M. Knoedler & Co. The couple, married two years earlier, were in New York purchasing furniture and paintings for their upstate home, Fountain Elms. In a letter Rachel wrote to her sister Maria from the Plaza Hotel, the 46-year old Rachel spoke enthusiastically about the work. Addressing her younger sister by her nickname "Linkling," Rachel--who signed the letter using her own nickname "The Mink"--noted that Breton's picture would "do nicely on the stairs or might not be too large for the back parlour" (now the dining room?) in Fountain Elms where Diaz de la Peña's, Beeches (PC. 36) was then hanging. Rachel added that Breton's "picture was painted as a companion to the Communicants on which Mamma tried to bid at the Morgan sale." That work, painted by Breton in 1884, and equal in size to Young Girls Going to a Procession, depicts a group of white-robed children on an early spring morning making their way through a rustic village to a nearby church. The American steamship heiress, Mary Jane Sexton Morgan, purchased The Communicants (private collection) for $12,000. Shortly after her death two years later the picture was sold in an auction at the American Art Galleries in New York for $45,500, the highest price ever paid in the United States for a painting up to that time.

The pendant work that Rachel admired was exhibited by Breton at the Paris Salon in 1888, the year he painted it. He showed it again in Paris the following year at the Universal Exposition where the Eiffel Tower dominated the skyline. By 1893 the work was in Chicago were it was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition. Despite this exposure, Young Girls Going to a Procession remained unsold for eight years. This may explain why Rachel optimistically noted in her letter to Maria that although the asking price for the picture was $20,000 a lower offer of "$15,000 might buy it, and they could cable [Breton] any offer that we would make." However, with an air of hesitancy about such an extravagant purchase she added: "It does seem so much to put in a picture, when one thinks of fires and leaving the house shut and all. We have left the matter undecided, and perhaps we can go together and look at the picture this week."

While there is no evidence when Rachel and Frederick finally bought the painting, or at what price, it was in Utica by at least the spring of 1899. From April 10-22 of that year the couple loaned it to a local benefit exhibition for St. Luke's Home and Hospital. An unlabeled photograph in the Museum's collection (PC. 2008.7) shows the painting hanging "Salon style" among at least three other pictures the Proctors owned which are now in the permanent collection. This unidentified photograph probably depicts one corner of the St. Luke's benefit exhibition. The likelihood of this is based on the evidence of a pendant photograph in the collection—stamped “Harris & Greene / Utica, N.Y.” (PC. 2008.6)--which shows an adjacent section of the same exhibition with four Proctor paintings that are now in the collection. One of these, Constant Troyon’s Duck Pond (PC. 106) was listed as number 97 in the benefit exhibition’s accompanying brochure.

The handsome Barbizon-style frame that presently surrounds the work is the same one in the photograph mentioned above. This style of frame was very popular in the United States in the post-Civil War era. It characteristically features a prominent convex molding ornamented with a rich profusion of leafy forms. The frame was probably selected either by Breton himself or his dealer. There is a paper label on the back of the work, printed in dark blue, which reads: “Goupil’s / Fifth Avenue.” Goupil and Co. was the venerable French commercial art gallery that maintained a branch in New York City until Michael Knoedler purchased it earlier in the century. The presence of the Goupil label on the back of this work provides some insight into the nature of the fluid business relationship that existed between two of Paris and New York’s most prestigious commercial art galleries at the end of the 19th century.

Paul D. Schweizer, April 2006
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