Object in Depth: John Leslie Breck’s Studies of an Autumn Day

Throughout series of paintings known as Studies of an Autumn Day by John Leslie Breck, hay mounds, farm buildings, ridge, and trees maintain their positions as their colors, textures, and shadows evolve with the moving sun and changing atmospheric conditions in the manner of time-lapse still photography. Although only twelve paintings of the series now are known to exist, Breck painted fifteen, as indicated by the numbered stanzas that comprise the poem “The Day (On Seeing John Leslie Breck’s ‘Studies of an Autumn Day’),” by the artist’s brother Edward. +

“The Day”
by Edward Breck

She sleeps.
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 ‘tis 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!

VI. and VII.
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 towards 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,
Now clasps in soft embrace the fervid field.
Half dazed, half thrilled, he gently yields him,
His throbbing temples cooled by her caresses.

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 from 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.
She sleeps!

Exhibited under the title Studies of an Autumn Day in 1893 and called Continual Studies of the Same Day in the 1900 memorial exhibition of Breck’s work, the paintings can be arranged so as to show time’s passage in what appears to be a single day. In fact, they were created over the course of three days. Breck evidently worked on these small, portable canvases outdoors before his subject, carefully maintaining the position of his easel so as to picture exactly the same view in all the renderings. The result is a deliberately observed, almost scientifically dispassionate examination of optical phenomena that nonetheless conveys a hushed reverence for the immutability of natural cycles, climaxing in the evocative image of the rising golden autumn moon in the final, fully signed painting.

Breck painted Studies of an Autumn Day during the last weeks he spent in the artists’ colony in the rural village Giverny, in Normandy, France. Breck had first visited in 1887, one of the first of many American artists who worked there experimenting with the outdoor painting method, divided brushstrokes, and bright colors of impressionism. As one of the few visitors admitted to the inner circle of impressionist pioneer Claude Monet (1840–1926), Breck was inspired by the master’s subjects as well as his style. Studies of an Autumn Day appears a direct homage to Monet, who the year before had begun his serial interpretations of the grainstacks that dotted the fields surrounding Giverny during the harvest season. Yet the methodical, even mechanical exactitude of Breck’s approach, extending to his method of applying paint in small, nervous but controlled touches, suggests also his awareness of the experimental art of French painter Georges Seurat (1859–91), whose so-called neoimpressionism imposed a scientific detachment on impressionism’s broken brushstrokes, pure color, and emphasis on purely visual experience. Studies of an Autumn Day marked not only the limits of Breck’s engagement with such radical new ways of painting but the end of his sojourn in Giverny. About the time he made his series, Monet broke off his relationship with Breck, alarmed at the American’s romantic interest in his stepdaughter Blanche Hoschedé and possibly also by his artistic emulation. In addition to Studies of an Autumn Day, Breck painted as many as three other paintings of grainstacks, including Morning Fog and Sun.

In European and American art, grainstacks long had served as symbols of fecundity and the wholesome virtues of agricultural life, and they were popular subjects for American artists in France. Breck’s Studies of an Autumn Day is exceptional, however, as an essay in Monet’s method of repeatedly painting the same landscape subject. While Monet varied the compositions of his grainstack pictures and painted them over a two-year period, Breck confined his series to the exact same view observed in the course of what appears to be a single day. Indeed, Breck approached the concept of seriality with particular rigor, conceiving of the fifteen paintings as a discrete whole. A photograph of the artist in his Boston studio shows works in the series hung unframed and edge-to-edge in a frieze-like arrangement, possibly the manner in which they originally were exhibited. Although the informal connotation of “studies” and the canvases’ unvarnished surfaces and intimate size, appropriate to the pochade or oil sketch, all downplay the paintings’ pretensions as formal works of art, Breck and his contemporaries evidently considered the series as a whole worthy of public exhibition. It validates the artist’s status among his contemporaries as an artistic innovator: a self-contained work in numerous parts, the series focuses relentlessly and fixedly on a single subject that simultaneously embodies both immobility and continual change: it is a self-contained, self-generating narrative of which the painter is at once impresario and detached observer.

—Wendy Greenhouse, Independent Scholar, Chicago

Study 1

The first of Breck’s multiple Studies of an Autumn Day, this canvas presents three grainstacks in an open field in the fleeting moment of dawn just before the sun breaks over the horizon. The ghostly bulk of red-roofed farm buildings is visible at the far left, nestled against the solid mass of a gentle ridge. Details are minimized to capture the flattening effect of the lingering shade of night, with paint applied in a finely textured pattern of small, distinct strokes. The muted gray-blue sky lightens from upper left to lower right, countered by the gentle diagonal band of dull pink cloud below which a bright star hovers.

Study 2

The glow of the sun just edging over the horizon tints the broken clouds a range of colors from pale violet to gold, in the second of Breck’s Studies of an Autumn Day. In this painting the brilliance of the light from the sky throws the looming forms of the globular stacks and the line of trees on the right horizon into shadow. Details are minimized and the appearance of the receding ground in the lower half of the composition is flattened by the application of paint in a finely textured pattern of small, distinct strokes of green and brown. The contrast between the brilliance of the skyscape and the static presence of the earthbound forms below captures the quiet drama of daybreak. Aside from the last painting in the series, this is the only canvas signed by the artist, and it is the only one that bears a date.

Study 3

This study captures the effect of blinding light from the newly risen sun as it flattens the forms of grainstacks, distant trees on the right, and farm buildings on the left. An intervening haze of moist air diffuses the sunlight, through which colors appear bleached and muted. Stacks and buildings are silhouetted against the light-filled sky, while a low ridge on the left (clearly visible in other paintings in the series) appears only as a ghostly suggestion. The forms of solid objects are so thinly painted that sketched lines in graphite can be seen through the pigment. The ground, in contrast, is rendered in a finely textured pattern of small, distinct strokes of blue-green, tan, and white to mimic the subtle vibration of colored surfaces seen through palpable atmosphere. Breck reinterpreted the particular light effects captured in this work in a larger painting entitled Morning Sun and Fog (1999.19), which he completed following the series Studies of an Autumn Day.

Study 4

The fourth of Breck’s multiple Studies of an Autumn Day, this view contrasts with the preceding ones in the relative solidity of the forms of stacks, trees, buildings, and the distant ridge on the left. Dashed brushstrokes in green and orange-brown indicate the uneven surface of the foremost stack, the rising sunlight gilds the upper edges of the trees in the right distance, and the distinct bands of cultivated fields on the hillside are clearly visible. While the cool morning light is diffused across the fair sky, the clarity of the air is signaled by the firm horizon line and the well-defined shadows cast by the haystacks over the stubbly surface of the field, enlivened by contrasting strokes of pale pink and greens.

Study 5

The fifth work in Breck’s series shows the scene bathed in the warm light of full morning. Compared with the preceding view (1989.4.4), the shadows of the grain stacks have shifted, narrowed, and solidified into distinct dark streaks across the stubbly surface of the field, which is indicated by a finely textured pattern of choppy brushstrokes in pale salmon pink and greens. Small clouds accentuate the clear blue of the sky.

Study 6

Shortening shadows cast on and by grain stacks indicate the approach of midday in this painting, the sixth of Breck’s Studies of an Autumn Day. On the horizon at left, a line of trees crowning the low ridge appears bright green against a sky of strong blue and soft fair-weather clouds. Compared with the preceding painting in the series (1989.4.5), the whitewashed farm wall marking the boundary of the field in the right distance has shifted from a shadowed dull gray to a pale blue. To capture the vibrating effect of the stubbly surface of the mown field in strong sunlight, Breck used a nervous pattern of short, choppy brushstrokes in contrasting tones of greens and pale salmon pink.

Study 7

Differing dramatically from the preceding work in Breck’s series, this work presents the dominant forms of three grain stacks in the full sunlight of early afternoon. The shadows cast by the globular mounds are minimal and the contours of the stacks themselves are barely suggested, while the more vigorously painted clouds have shifted, hinting at a powerful breeze. The tawny colors of the grain stacks are echoed in the slightly lighter tones of the field’s surface, which seems to vibrate in the strong sunlight as a result of Breck’s technique of choppy brushstrokes of yellows and pale pink with touches of green.

Study 8

In the eighth of Breck’s Studies of an Autumn Day, the lowering sun of late afternoon touches the top of the foremost mound with gold tones. In the left distance, the farm buildings and the cultivated hillside brighten in the glare of oblique sunlight, which picks out the rough texture of the field in the foreground; its stubbly surface is evoked by means of short strokes of interspersed yellows, pink, and red. The stillness of the air is indicated by the flattening clouds in the calm blue sky, and touches of lavender on the horizon on the right hint at the coming of twilight.

Study 9

The creeping shadows of dusk dominate the ninth of Breck’s series. Compared with the preceding view (1989.4.8), the intensity of the sunlight has dropped, dulling the green tones of the distant hillside on the left and the trees on the right horizon. Shadows—presumably of trees or other objects just behind the viewer—cast strange shapes that taper upward from the lower right edge of the composition and partly envelop the three grain stacks. Like the unshaded tawny of the stubbly field, the flat gray shadows are rendered by a vibrating pattern of choppy brushstrokes in the artist’s attempt to replicate the optical effects of transient light on surfaces.

Study 10

The tenth of the series depicts the fleeting moment just after the sun, at the viewer’s back, has dropped below the horizon. The scene is still illuminated by the diffused glow of the light-filled sky, but a slight shadow is evenly cast across the landscape, softening and muting colors and forms in anticipation of the coming darkness of night; in particular, the red roofs of farm buildings in the left distance has shifted from strong pink tones in the preceding painting in the series (1989.4.9) to pale pink and gray that echo the tint of the sky on the horizon at right.

Study 11

A large deep-gold moon rises over distant trees in the eleventh painting in the series. Compared with the preceding view (1989.4.10), colors have deepened, forms have flattened, and contours and edges have softened. The sky has assumed a pale purple-blue tone, with the suggestion of a band of hazy clouds, described in strokes of pale blue-green and white, crossing the field of view just above the horizon. In the foreground, the mottled gold surface of the stubbly field is punctuated by notes of green, indicating the shadows of the coming night.

Study 12

In the last painting in Breck’s serial Studies of an Autumn Day, a pale gold moon hangs above the horizon at twilight. In contrast to the preceding view in the series (1989.4.11), colors have deepened, with the whitewashed farm wall that extends across the background now a pale green. The sky is a deepening purple-blue that lightens toward the horizon on the right. The artist’s inscription at lower left probably marks this as the culminating scene in the series, although the second of the group also bears his signature.