John Leslie Breck

Artist Biography

John Leslie Breck is considered the American painter responsible for introducing a new style of impressionist painting to the United States in 1890. He was a landscape painter who absorbed both the formal aspects of Dutch Mastery and also the impressionist style and techniques of Claude Monet. The atmospheric perspective and vibrant colors seen in his landscapes of Massachusetts, Giverny, and Venice demonstrate his great talent as a landscape artist.

By Chelsea DeLay

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Note
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

John Leslie Breck, the son of a naval officer, was born at sea in Hong Kong in 1860. He was brought up in Newton, Massachusetts, where he attended Governor’s Academy from 1868 to 1869.[1] At the age of eighteen, Breck left America to study art in Europe and enrolled as a student at the Munich Royal Academy. His artistic style began to develop and was infused with the brushy strokes and brown hues typically seen in the works of Dutch Masters. Breck returned to Boston in 1882 where he spent the next few years painting landscapes of his native Massachusetts.

In 1886, John Leslie Breck returned to Europe to study in Paris at the Académie Julian. While at school, Breck established many connections that would impact to his artistic style. He studied under Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph LeFebvre, and also met a handful of fellow American artists studying abroad. The year of 1887 marked an important period of Breck’s career; Breck, along with fellow American artists Williard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson, traveled to Giverny, France, a picturesque countryside town that was home to the impressionist master Claude Monet.

Breck’s skill as an artist did not go unnoticed, and it was soon after his arrival in Giverny that he became a close friend of Monet. His academic approach quickly absorbed Monet’s style, which became evident as his works began to feature informal, outdoor subjects rendered with looser brushwork and brighter colors. This shift is seen when comparing The River Epte, Giverny (1887) with Garden at Giverny (1890). The first demonstrates an example of Breck’s initial attempt at integrating Impressionism into his earlier dark, tonal palette, while the second is almost a mature adaptation of Monet’s style.

Despite his mild success exhibiting as an American artist in Parisian Salons during 1888 and 1889[2], Breck soon returned home after a failed relationship with Monet’s stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschédé-Monet.[3] His return to Boston in 1890 grants him responsibility for introducing the impressionist style to the American art world. His bright landscapes led to his first solo exhibition at the St. Botolph Club in 1890, where he was subsequently initiated as a member, and then a second show in 1895.[4] Breck’s style shifted once more when he traveled to Venice, Italy in 1897, where he painted several moonlight scenes.

John Leslie Breck passed away at the young age of thirty-nine, but his death was rumored to have been a suicide. His tragic death occurred just as he was coming into his own as an artist, breaking free of the stylistic influences of both his academic training and Monet’s Impressionism. This fatal misfortune was noted by several art critics, who claimed that the works in which “the young man let his own personality come to the front, were much the best.”[5]

II. Chronology

1860 Born aboard his father’s clipper ship, off of the coast of Hong Kong.
1868-1869 Studies at Governors Academy.
1878 Travels to Germany to pursue a formal education in art. Enrolls at the Royal Academy in Munich and also studies in Antwerp under Charles Verlat.
1882 Returns to Boston, begins painting tonal still life and landscape paintings.
1886 Enrolls at the Académie Julian in Paris, France.
1887 Spends the spring and summer in Giverny, France, where he became close with Claude Monet.
1889 Receives Honorary Mention in the Paris Exposition Universelle for Autumn at Giverny (The New Moon).
1890 First solo exhibition at the St. Botolph Club.
Initiated as a member of the St. Botolph Club in Boston.
Paints Studies of an Autumn Day, a series of 15 paintings considered to be his best-known work.
1891 Returns to Boston after ending relationship with Monet’s stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschédé-Monet.
1892 Paints Flower Garden at Annisquam, which later sells for $270,000 at Christies in 2000.
1893 Solo exhibition at the Chase Gallery in New York.
1896 Featured in an exhibition at the Newton Club.
1897 Travels to Venice, Italy, where he develops his later style of painting by moonlight and exhibited work.
1899 Passes away in Boston, cause of death ruled asphyxiation, but rumored to be suicide.
1900 Memorial exhibition featuring sketches and paintings of the late John Leslie Breck held at the gallery of the National Arts Club in New York

III. Collections

Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Daniel J Terra Collection, IL
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Musée d'Art Américain Giverny, France
Newton History Museum, MA
Pfeil Collection, WI
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation, AL

VI. Exhibitions

1888, 1889 Paris Salon
1889 Paris Exposition Universelle
1890, 1895, 1899 St. Botolph Club, Boston
1893 Chase Gallery, Boston
1893 The Society of American Artists
1895 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)
1896 The Newton Club
1898 National Academy of Design (NAD)

V. Memberships

1890 The St. Botolph Club

VI. Suggested Resources

Bourguignon, Katherine M. et al. Impressionist Giverny: A Colony of Artists, 1885–1915. (exh. cat. Musée d'Art Américain Giverny). Chicago, Illinois: Terra Foundation for American Art, 2007, pp. 23, 36, 66, 102, 204, cat. p. 108.
Fink, Lois Marie. American Artists at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Stuhlman, Jonathan. John Leslie Breck: American Impressionist. Charlotte, North Carolina: The Mint Museum, 2021.
Weber, Bruce. American Paintings XII. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 2005.

VII. Notes

2. Lois Marie Fink, American Artists at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990), 324
4. Doris A. Birmingham, “Boston’s St. Botolph Club: Home of the Impressionists,” in Archives of American Art Journal vol. 31, no. 3 (1991): 26–34
5. “Recent Exhibitions in New York,” in Brush and Pencil vol. 6, no. 1 (Apr., 1900): 17–21.

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