Léon Lhermitte was born in 1844 and was still executing works in the French rural tradition at his death in 1925, making him the last in an illustrious group of artists. He demonstrated his artistic talent at a young age and left his home in Mont-Saint-Père, Aisne for the Petite Ecole in Paris where he studied with Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Lecoq was known for his insistence on training the visual memory of his students and his theories had a profound effect on the young Lhermitte. It was in the studio of Lecoq that Lhermitte began his life-long friendship with Jean Cazin, and it was also there that he made the acquaintance of Alphonse Legros, Henri Fantin-Latour and Auguste Rodin. Lhermitte sent his first entry to the Paris Salon in 1864 when he was nineteen and won his first medal in 1874 with La Moisson (Musée de Carcassonne). Throughout his long career he was awarded the Grand Prix at the Exposition universelle in 1889, the Diplome d’Honneur, Dresden and the Legion of Honor. He was also a founding member of the Société nationale des Beaux Arts.
Throughout his long career, Lhermitte remained devoted to his chosen subject matter, the peasant, which to him was the embodiment of the most fundamental and consistent element in human society. Although Lhermitte was well connected in artistic circles and was aware of both revolutionary artistic movements and the rapid industrial changes of his time, he established and maintained his career as a painter of rural life. He was not alone in this choice. His friend Jean Cazin, as well as Julien Dupré, Jules Breton and Jules Bastien-Lepage all communicated through their work the pride, integrity and innocence that characterizes the rural classes in the second half of the 19th century. It is clear the most profound influence upon his work was Jean François Millet who was also equally adept with pastel as with oil.
While one cannot characterize Lhermitte as an innovator, he remained true to his own artistic conscience, creating beautiful, light-filled works in the Barbizon tradition, reinforcing the dignity of peasant life and the glory of the French rural landscape in the face of encroaching technology. Lhermitte was much admired by his peers, both those who remained entrenched in the Barbizon tradition as well as the innovators of the Impressionist movement. Vincent van Gogh wrote, ‘He (Lhermitte) is the absolute master of the figure, he does what he likes with it – proceeding neither from the color nor the local tone but rather from the light – as Rembrandt did – there is an astonishing mastery in everything he does, above all excelling at modeling, he perfectly satisfies all that honesty demands’.
La têtée ou La jeune mère effectively combines all of the hallmarks of Lhermitte’s most sought-after works: peasants at work or rest in an expansive landscape with multiple figures. The composition is complex, with the placement of the figures carefully arranged in order to concentrate the eye of the viewer on the interaction of all three figures. The mother has paused from her labors to nurse her newborn child, while the older sister looks on, her water jug at her side to quench her mother’s thirst. The figure group is reminiscent of Holy Family compositions from earlier centuries, brought forward to the present day and planted firmly in the earth so carefully tilled and harvested by these peasants. The landscape is composed to rise up around the figures rather than move progressively backwards. The result is an integrated composition which emphasizes the connection between the peasants, their work and the landscape that provides their livelihood and remains true to the artistic vision which sustained Lhermitte throughout his long, successful career.