Jules Trayer was born in Paris and studied under his father before entering the École des Beaux-Arts in Metz and the Académie Suisse in Paris. He first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1847. In the 1850s he exhibited compositions inspired by history and literature, later turning to genre subjects, which became his specialty. He worked both in oil and watercolour, and frequently treated peasant themes in his work.
From the 1860s to the 1880s Trayer painted numerous interiors and rural scenes – invariably focused on women’s activities – in Quimperlé and Pont-Aven, at a time when Naturalist painters were flocking to Brittany to portray the region’s rugged landscape and picturesque fishing ports, as well as the daily lives of the Breton people with their traditional customs, distinctive costumes and devout religious practices.
A confined cottage interior is the setting for the quiet scene in the Art Gallery of NSW’s watercolour Breton peasant girl. At the centre, a young Breton woman with delicate features is absorbed in needlework. She wears a heavy blue dress edged with a wide, white collar, a simple headdress, and wooden clogs. A large apron protects her clothing from the exertions of her daily chores. Sunlight entering the room from the window on the left draws attention to the woman’s nimble fingers and heightens the intimate mood. The figure is seated on a plain wooden bench, and her feet rest on a low footstool, providing her only source of comfort while she works. Small, inexpensive prints are framed on the wall. An assortment of painted ceramic plates and a small pot are displayed on the wooden crockery rack. On the table neatly tucked against the wall sits a green and a brown glazed earthenware jug.
Despite the humble appearance of the dwelling and the life of poverty and hard work we are invited to imagine for its occupant, the picture nonetheless suggests the young woman’s inner sense of underlying contentment as she carries out everyday chores faithfully and without despair. Such charming images of peasant life – repeated by countless popular painters across Europe – held strong appeal for contemporary spectators and buyers alike, who saw in the figure of the rural labourer an enduring archetype closer to nature than any urban dweller.
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017