John Leslie Breck was an early exponent of the “new painting”, avant-garde style, of Impressionism. Born at sea on a clipper ship in the South Pacific, he had a father who was a captain in the U.S. Navy.
Breck grew up in the Boston area. He obtained his art training at the Munich Royal Academy, learning rapid brushstroke and dark Tonalism. Beginning in 1886, he studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, and soon became one of the original settlers of the important Impressionist art colony in Giverny, France.
John’s brother, Edward Breck, wrote of John’s experience in Giverny, in an article of March 8, 1895 in the “Boston Evening Transcript”. He describes the summer of 1887, when John, Edward, their mother, as well as Theodore Robinson, Theodore Wendel, and Blair Bruce were the original American colony in Giverny. Curiously, Edward Breck’s account of their discovery of Giverny does not mention Monet, and rather that the town was a ‘chance’ happening, based on the region’s charms, although it is doubtful Breck was completely unaware of Monet when he went there.
However, of the many American painters who spent time at Giverny in 1887, Breck and Robinson “were the two who became closest to Monet” . . . For a time Breck must have appeared as Monet’s most promising artistic heir among the Americans. (Gerdts 48-49). His “Garden of Giverny” is one of the first Impressionist flower garden paintings among the American artist.
In 1888, in Giverny, Breck began to paint by moonlight. He carried this moonlight theme to Venice in 1896 and 1897 (Santa Maria della Salute by Moonlight). It was said at the time that his style marked the turning of a new chapter in painting. At Giverny, Breck not only came to know Monet, he also became romantically involved with his stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschede-Monet. Monet intervened, however, and the disappointed suitor Breck left Giverny in 1890 and returned to Boston via England and California.
Breck’s achievements as an American artist constituted some of the earliest fully realized impressionistic paintings in this country. His works influenced the positive movement of Impressionism that occurred in the Boston area in the late 1880s and 1890s.
Breck’s close association with Monet can be seen in pictures Breck completed of Monet’s houseboat and garden, which were shown in Breck’s first one-man art show in Boston, in 1890, at the St. Botolph Club, the year of his return to America. From that time on, he created some of his most memorable works, many of them focusing on sites along the Massachusetts coastline.
He died in 1899 at the age of thirty-nine.
Elaine Adams, ‘In the Land of Casanova’, California Art Club Newsletter, February 2003
William Gerdts, “Lasting Impressions”