Born in 1860 at sea on a clipper ship in the South Pacific, John Leslie Breck, son of a U.S. Navy Captain, was raised in the Boston area and attended Dummer Academy as a child. The Governor’s Academy archival records reveal that Breck was a student at the academy during the years 1868 and 1869. According to the academy’s records, Breck resided in Newton Lower Falls, a village of Newton, Massachusetts, through at least 1871. He would subsequently study in Munich, Germany, and in 1886, at the Academie Julian in Paris, France (1886).
One of the artists to settle in the famous impressionist art colony of Giverny, Breck would become one of the few Americans to enter the inner circle of Claude Monet. It has been reported that he was once viewed as Monet’s most promising artistic heir among Americans. The website of the City of Newton (http://www.ci.newton.ma.us/jackson/newton-artists/artists/john-breck.html) provides information about John Leslie Breck's life, and includes the following picture of Breck (seated) with Claude Monet's wife and stepdaughters, Monet himself (center, standing), Monet's son Jean, and Henry Fitch Taylor, another American painter.
In 1888, Breck began to paint by moonlight, a technique that he would later employ on canvases such as Santa Maria della Salute by Moonlight (see below).
After a failed romance with Monet’s stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschede-Monet, he returned to Boston in 1890 and continued to paint in the avant-garde style. Many of Breck’s canvases were created after his return from France, with several featuring scenes along the Massachusetts coast. Flower Garden at Annisquam (see below), painted in 1892, sold through Christie’s for $270,000 in 2000.
Breck’s U.S.-based works are some of the earliest fully realized impressionistic painting in this country. His many works include the following:
The River Epte, Giverny, 1887
Les Coquelicots, 1890
Grainstack, Giverny, 1891
Early Snow, 1894
New England Village, circa 1895
Guidecca Canal, Venice, 1897
Breck’s well-known series of 15 paintings—Studies of an Autumn Day—feature hay mounds, farm buildings, a ridge, and trees as anchors while their colors, textures, and shadows, which are captured at various times during one day, evolve with the movement of the sun and changing atmospheric conditions. Canvases from this collection appear below.
The artist’s brother, Edward, penned the following poem in tribute to the content of the serial works:
By Edward Breck
Soft pillowed on fair cloudland’s purple bank.
Sweet Nature sleeps, still guarded by the night,
And dreams, love-drunken, of her Lord, the Sun.
But see! She wakes! And waking thinks of him!
Across her limpid cheek warm blushes flame,
And all her form thrills with expectant joy!
And lo! From o’er the hills and purple fields
Behold the Lord of Day in splendor rise,
Flash far on high his blinding bolts of light,
And tip the harvest peaks with dazzling fire!
But ‘this not meet roe impious mortal’s gaze
To view the rapture of that first embrace,
When Nature’s form he clasps with ardent arms.
From fleeting night he tears the lustrous veil
To deck the blushes of his beauteous bride.
Once more he sweeps from earth the fairy film
And shoots his rays athwart the dew-decked field,
Turning each drop into a flashing gem!
With ruby, pearl and emerald bedight
Fair Nature wanders through the golden day,
Her lovely face turned upward to her Lord,
And smiling back his smile, until on high
He turns his chariot round the top of Heaven
And downward gallops toward the earth again.
At his return she laughs and clasps her hands!
She drinks the perfume of the oderous earth,
The melodies of sylvan symphonies.
The field, abashed at such magnificence,
And feeling with the lover’s instinct sure
The coming of the evening, blushes red,
With all his pulses swelling at the thought!
But see! The dusky maid, of waiting weary,
With lovely, slender arms outstretched,
Alas, how art thou tricked! Those arms are more
Than cooling—they are cold! Thy blushes die.
Thy thrill turns to a shudder as the eve,
Her lips on thine, locks thee in her embrace!
The jilted sunshine, laughing from the hills,
At thy poor plight, is off, the wanton wench,
To woo the cloudlets in the western sky.
Despair not yet, for the darkling vale
Uprises in transcendent loveliness
The Queen of Night, before whose majesty
In terror shrinks thy gloomy torturer.
Singing the sweet, yet unheard song of silence,
She hangs aloft her robe of blue and silver;
And Nature, hearing, seeing, sinks to rest,
O’ercome by beauty’s soothing anodyne.
John Leslie Breck’s premature death came at the age of 39 in 1899.