Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875)
An important figure in French painting of the mid-19th century, the artist Jean-Francois Millet was a founding member of the Barbizon landscape school in France and is best known for his genre-painting and landscape painting - mainly featuring the back-breaking rural life of the French peasantry. His style can be categorized as both Naturalism and religious realism. His most notable paintings include The Angelus (1858, Musee d'Orsay), The Gleaners (1857, Musee d'Orsay), The Sower (1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and the arresting Man with a Hoe (1860, J Paul Getty Museum, LA). Many of Millet's paintings are available online as prints in the form of poster art. NOTE: For an explanation of how Realism led to Impressionism and ultimately to abstraction, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).
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Born in 1819, in Greville-Hague, Normandy, his parents were peasant farmers. He was educated under the local priests, but showed such a talent for drawing he was sent to Cherbourg in 1833 to study with the portrait painter Paul Dumouchel. By 1835 he was studying full time with Lucien-Theophile Langlois. In 1837 he received a stipend to move to Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the French academic painter Paul Delaroche. His early works showed strong influences of Nicolas Poussin and consisted mainly of portraits and mythological subjects.
However by the late 1840s his subject matter changed, and similar to Gustave Courbet - noted for The Artist's Studio (1855) and A Burial at Ornans (1850) - and Honore Daumier, he started to paint peasants going about their everyday normal life. The Winnower (now lost) was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1848 and was one of the first rural scenes he painted based on his childhood memories. In 1849 a cholera epidemic broke out in Paris, and on the advice of engraver Charles-Emile Jacque, he moved to Barbizon, near the Fontainebleau Forest, where he was to remain the rest of his life. It was here, that his painting had a huge influence on the Barbizon School. The school was moving towards outdoor realism, or naturalism, choosing to paint from nature directly - a method known as plein air painting - and abandoning the formality of classical painting.
Other leading members of this plein air painting movement included members of the school of English landscape painting, such as John Constable (1776-1837) and Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), as well as French painters like Theodore Rousseau (1812-67), Camille Corot (1796-1875), Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1808-1876), Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Jules Dupre (1811-1889), Joseph Harpignies (1819-1916), Constant Troyon (1810-1865), Charles-Emile Jacque (1813-1894), Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875), Albert Charpin, Felix Ziem and Alexandre De Faux.
In 1858 Millet painted his famous realist painting known as The Angelus, which depicts a hard working peasant couple taking a break from their toil in the fields to pray. The painting is simple in style and depicts the figures in complete harmony with their surroundings. The work, along with his other peasant scenes, cements Millet's reputation as one of the best genre painters of the 19th century. The Angelus was much copied after his death, and the Surrealist Salvador Dali was so fascinated by it, that he wrote an essay entitled The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet. He was convinced that the 2 figures were praying over their buried child, rather than praying to the Angelus. In fact he was so insistent, an X-ray of the canvas was taken which indeed showed a painted-over shape which looked strikingly like a coffin. However it is unclear whether Millet changed his mind on the meaning behind the painting, or if in fact the shape is a coffin.
Other famous landscape paintings by Millet include Harvesters Resting (1850), The Walk to Work (1851), Woman Baking Bread (1854, Kroller-Muller Museum), The Gleaners (1857, Musee d'Orsay), The Man with a Hoe (1860, Getty Centre, Los Angeles), and The Potato Planters (1861, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). At the beginning of 1860 a patron contracted him to paint 25 works in return for a three year stipend, and another patron commissioned pastel works for a collection which would grow to over 90. The Gleaners, The Angelus and The Potato Planters were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, which hosted a major gathering of his works. In 1868 he was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur
Later in life his palette tended to lighten somewhat, and as his brushstrokes loosened, he veered towards Impressionism. But, unlike the Impressionists, he never painted outdoors, and he never paid too much attention to tonal values. It was his draughtsmanship and the attention he paid to ordinary people in his works that appealed to artists like Van Gogh (who mentioned Millet's work several times in letters to his brother) and Georges Seurat.
Although he was accused of being a socialist, his paintings had an almost religious gloss to them, which made them more acceptable and profitable at the time. Nevertheless, he had a huge influence on other younger artists including Eugene Boudin (1824-98), Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). In 1875 he married his partner Catherine, and died 17 days later.
For a more detailed commentary on Millet's life and paintings, see below:
A few people are raised to the heights of religious and aesthetic exaltation at the experience of misery. They feed upon sorrow yet transform it into real beauty. Such a man was Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875), painter of The Man with the Hoe, The Sower, The Gleaners, The Angelus, native of Normandy, child of a peasant and son and heir of poverty. Among the French artists of the nineteenth century he stands out as the patron saint of pessimism, a man who found inspiration in the sadness of human existence.
Painter of Rural Hardship
Millet's Youth and Upbringing
As a young man he had sketched a few charcoal pieces at night after a hard day's toil in the fields of his native home. These sketches had excited the admiration of a third-rate artist who lived in the vicinity. From then on Millet was aware that a farmer's career was not for him. Art was his business, his mission, his very religion. The friendly artist interceded with a committee in Paris to vote him a scholarship. Millet left his home and went to the capital. But as soon as he got there a great longing for the countryside seized him. He had arrived in "black, muddy, smoky Paris," as he called it, one snowy evening in January. The traffic of the carriages, the street lights deluged with fog, the narrow lanes and the dirty hovels sent the tears rushing to his eyes. To check a sudden burst of sobbing he threw over his face handfuls of water from a street fountain. That made him feel better. After all, he was here on a religious pilgrimage. The last words of his grandmother, a stern, stately, chaste Catholic with the soul of a Puritan, now came back to him. "I would rather see you dead, my child, than rebellious and unfaithful to God's commandments ... Remember, you are a Christian before you are an artist."
It is precisely this quality in Millet's
art that the critics have seized upon. They say that he was more of a
Christian than an artist. Take, for example, his well-known oil painting
The Gleaners. Three peasant women are gleaning in the fields, mechanically,
wearily, under a hot, blazing midsummer sun that scorches the land with
its devastating rays. In the background a group of harvesters pile up
the golden grain. A farmer, mounted on a wagon, supervises their work.
Two of the women gleaners, dressed respectively in red and blue kerchiefs,
are bent over, fumbling with their fingers in a dumb, uncomplaining way
for the stubble. A third woman stands up to ease the strain, perhaps to
wonder, for a moment, what cruel law it is that has condemned her to such
suffering and toil. But after this momentary flash of insight, after this
partial kindling of the divine fire which promises to turn this clay into
something human, it is apparent that she will take her place beside the
others and bend her back once more. "In the sweat of thy brow shalt
thou earn thy bread."
And so he had settled with his wife and his children in a rambling hut in Barbizon, at the edge of the great forest. He dug and painted in his garden and brought up his family on the barest level of subsistence. He knew the peasants that he painted. He was their brother and a close intimate of sorrow and despair. In spite of the fact that his living expenses were almost negligible, he was unable to meet them. At one time he wrote: "I really don't know how I'm to fulfill my obligations and go on living." There were days when he didn't have two francs in his pockets. It was with a great deal of tenderness that he painted The Gleaners. He was quite familiar with the hardships of tbe French peasant. Yet the public greeted this painting with a chorus of derision. Referring to the figures of the three gleaners, one critic remarked: "These are homely scarecrows set up in a field: M. Millet's ugliness and vulgarity have no relief."
To this outburst Millet could have replied that even in things homely there is a goodness which is beyond the comprehension of a blind critic. Some of the critics called in question the technical aspects as well as the spiritual quality of the painting. The field in which the gleaners are working is bathed in a presumably hot, intense August sunlight. Yet the tonal finish is a murky, dull, ashen blue which suggests a haze. One of his defenders, however, explained this, pointing out that "the August sun sheds a powerful warmth upon the canvas. You will not find any of these capricious rays which gambol like holiday schoolboys in pictures by others. This is a grave sunshine which ripens wheat and makes men sweat and does not waste its time in frolics."
Millet spent most of his adult life in this "province for painters." He lived in a small barn heated by a wood stove. Twenty-seven years! He had a patient, uncomplaining wife to support. "Grand old woman," he said of her tenderly. And children, "the little toads," with mouths to feed. How hard the winter was to bear when your paintings weren't selling, when you were forever on the brink of starvation. Yet he was not a philosopher. He did not wish to do away with the bitterness of life or to find a formula that would make him stoical or indifferent. Pain is perhaps what gives the artist the strongest power of expression. "Art is not a diversion," he said. "It is a conflict, a complication of wheels in which one is crushed."
Millet Accused of Being an Artist Agitator
The Essence of Millet's Art: The Ultimate
in Religious Painting
This painting, not long after Millet's
death, was sold for a quarter of a million dollars. But in 1859, when
the artist had just completed it, he had reached the very depths of poverty.
"We have only enough fuel to last us for two or three days,"
he wrote, "and we don't know how we are going to get any more; for
they won't let us have any without money ... "
This was one of the few rebellious periods
of his life. When he had been unable to raise the fare for the visit to
his dying mother he had thrown up his hands in despair. "I am nailed
to a rock and condemned to hard labor without end!" And now, when
poverty once more crushed him helplessly down, he departed for once from
his usual objectivity and painted the bitterness of his despair in The
Man with the Hoe.
Complete public recognition came to this
patriarch painter in 1867, when he was fifty-three. Acclaimed as one of
the best landscape artists
for his peasant scenes, he won a gold medal from the Academy of Arts.
One year later he received the sweetest gift from the hand of Fate - and
the cruellest blow. He was awarded the decoration of the Legion of
Honor and he lost his dearest friend, Rousseau. Stricken with paralysis,
this "more than brother" died in his arms.
A raw but rare genius, who influenced many other artists, including the American Winslow Homer, it is perhaps no wonder that Millet has been called "the Dante of the Yokels, the Michelangelo of the Clowns."
Paintings by Jean-Francois Millet can be seen in the best art museums across the world.
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