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John Leslie Breck was a foremost American Impressionist painter, who was active in the United States and France. He was born at sea in 1860 as the son of a Navy captain, and was educated in boarding schools near Boston. He then traveled to Munich and Antwerp to begin serious study in fine art. In 1882 he returned to the United States, working under the influence of thick impasto brushwork and deep muted colors.


Breck traveled back to Europe in 1886 to study at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he learned traditional drawing and modeling from Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. The following year, he became one of the first American painters to establish themselves in Giverny. An impressionist art colony developed, and including contemporaries such as Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Theodore Wendel, Louis Ritter, and Henry Fitch Taylor. 

Unlike other painters, Breck stayed the winter at Giverny, and became close to Claude Monet, who had settled there four years earlier. Breck earned the distinction of being invited to paint in Monet’s garden, and produced a series of works inspired by the famed impressionist’s studies of haystacks. Breck became the first American to hold a public exhibition of scenes of Giverny, and his work earned an honorable mention at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889.


Artist Lilla Cabot Perry helped to bring Breck’s work back to the United States, inviting the artist to hold a private viewing in her Boston residence after discovering his work in France. In 1890 Breck traveled to Boston and held a well-received show of Giverny scenes at the St. Botolph Club. After leaving France in 1891, he traveled within England to paint the countryside there. An exhibit of this work was held at the New English Art Club in 1892. In the years before his sudden death in 1899, Breck resettled in the United States, and turned to depictions of New England landscapes. His work signaled a change in American painting, bringing the influence of impressionist techniques alongside the inspiration of Millet and the Barbizon school.


Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate