In the Valley of the Seine
John Leslie Breck (American, 1860–1899)
Overall: 70.8 x 130.2 cm (27 7/8 x 51 1/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Croll Gallery (Gallery 227)
Breck was an innovator of the American Impressionist movement and one of the first American painters to travel to Giverny, the small village in Normandy where Claude Monet, the master of French Impressionist landscape painting, had settled in 1883. Breck worked there with four of his compatriots in the summer of 1887 and returned to the town on multiple occasions. Along with his better-known colleague Theodore Robinson, he was among the few Americans admitted to Monet’s inner circle, invited to paint in the artist’s garden and reluctantly allowed to court one of his stepdaughters, Blanche Hoschedé.
In the Valley of the Seine is one of Breck’s largest and most ambitious compositions. Breck was committed to Impressionism and its stated ideal of making finished works outdoors directly from nature, but it seems likely that he completed this canvas indoors, in his studio. Its large format would have made it difficult to carry up the steep hills behind the village, and the composition seems scrupulously planned and carefully executed.
Breck depicted the entire panorama of the Seine river valley, looking out past the rooftops of the village and its cultivated fields and grainstacks to the distinctive poplar trees that line the riverbed (all subjects being explored by Monet in several series of paintings). Breck used varied brushstrokes of bright greens, blues, purples, oranges, and yellows, stippling his canvas to capture the flicker of leaves in the trees and drawing out his brush to show the long furrowed lines of the fields. The scene seems suffused with the moist light of summer; the haze is strongest over the unseen river, obscuring the distant hills and rising to form billowing clouds.
Despite the omniscient viewpoint and the comprehensive scope he employed—characteristics shared by more traditional landscape painters—Breck embraced a key component of French Impressionism for In the Valley of the Seine. His scene tells no story; it records no place of historic significance, nor does it attempt to imbue the natural with the divine. This lack of narrative, either explicit or implied, is one of the key features of Impressionist painting. There was no desire to tell stories—long the justification for traditional art, which was valued for the moral lessons it could teach. Instead, a simple view of an unremarkable landscape at one particular moment on an ordinary day was held to be an eminently suitable subject for art.
Breck returned to the United States in 1890, settling in Boston near his family and enjoying the support of local painters and collectors like Lilla Cabot Perry [64.2055], a champion of Monet’s style, who praised Breck’s work and helped to arrange for it to be exhibited. In 1890, a local writer described Breck as one of a group of progressive artists who had “got the blue-green color of Monet’s Impressionism and ‘got it bad.’”Breck’s blue-green In the Valley of the Seine was included in the artist’s first solo exhibition at Boston’s St. Botolph Club in 1890; it was shown again at a Boston gallery in 1893, when a writer for the Boston Evening Transcript described it as a view encompassing “a hint of the village embowered in luxuriant foliage of that worsted-work texture made familiar to us by the work of Monet,”and another local critic dubbed Breck the “head of the American Impressionists.”
When Breck died of gas poisoning at age thirty-nine in 1899, his mother inherited In the Valley of the Seine. It descended in the Breck family until its purchase by the MFA in 2009.
1. Greta, “Boston Art and Artists,” Art Amateur, October 1887, 93.
2. Boston Evening Transcript, January 19, 1893.
3. Boston Daily Globe, January 25, 1893.
Erica E. Hirshler
Signed lower right: J L Breck
About 1889, the artist; 1899, by inheritance to the artist's mother, Ellen Frances Newell Breck Rice; by 1900, by descent to the artist's only brother, Edward Breck, Esq., New York ; 1925, by descent to his oldest daughter, Ellen ("Nelly") Breck (Mrs. Forrest) Macnee; by descent to her husband, Forrest Macnee; 1962, by inheritance to his daughter, Ellen Frances Macnee (Mrs. Timothy) Coggeshall; 1980, by descent to her daughter, Caroline Coggeshall (the artist's great great niece); 2009, sold by Caroline Coggeshall to the MFA. (Accession Date: March 25, 2009)
 Edward Breck listed as owner in 1900 Memorial Exhibition.
Museum purchase with funds donated by exchange from the John Pickering Lyman Collection—Gift of Miss Theodora Lyman, Gift of Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge, The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund, Bequest of Maxim Karolik, Bequest of Alice Dodge Wolfson Herling, Gift of Alfred I. du Pont, and the Charles H. Bayley Picture and Painting Fund