Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy)
Summary of Jean-François Millet
French painter Jean-François Millet, whose humble manner of living stands in stark contrast to the impact his work had on many artists who succeeded him, saw Godliness and virtue in physical labor. Best known for his paintings of peasants toiling in rural landscapes, and the religious sub-texts that often accompanied them, he turned his back on the academic style of his early artistic education and co-founded the Barbizon school near Fontainbleau in Normandy, France with fellow artist Théodore Rousseau.
Millet saw his share of successes and failures with both critics and the public. People were deeply class-conscious amid France's politically volatile climate and perceived with suspicion anyone celebrating the 'nobility' of the peasant-class. Nevertheless, his personal convictions, use of Naturalism, and unromanticized imagery helped lay a foundation for later modern movements in art, and in due course, he became highly-regarded within the art world. Consequently, his practice impacted markedly the methods of many later painters, photographers, and writers who saw Millet as an inspiration, mentor, and friend.
- Raised in a deeply religious rural farming family, Millet saw the peasant-class as most nobly fulfilling the words of the Old Testament Book of Genesis 3:19, which read: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This served as a subtext in most of his paintings throughout his Barbizon years.
- While most artists of the Barbizon school concentrated on landscapes painted en plein air, Millet preferred to depict the life of ceaseless toil required of the peasant class, a social stratum for which he had great respect. He saw himself as being thoroughly of the peasant-class, stating his discomfort in the drawing rooms of the upper classes, and thus resolved to paint only that which he knew best.
- Millet depicted his peasants in the same manner earlier movements reserved for more exalted subjects. As a result, his shepherds and farm laborers occupied large spaces on the canvas formerly occupied by historic or Biblical figures, or mythological heroes. Consequently, many of his detractors saw him as an unspoken social critic with a leftist viewpoint, as were fellow Realists Honoré Daumier and Gustave Courbet. It was a time of social unrest in France brought about by the February Revolution of 1848, which did away with the monarchy. This was followed only months later by the bloody, but unsuccessful June Days Uprising in Paris, a rebellion by working-class people who saw their newly elected government becoming increasingly conservative. Millet, however, insisted his interests bore no relation to the politics of the time.
- Millet's paintings often display traits of his earlier art education during the Romantic period. Previous to the Barbizon school his subjects incorporated mythological and religious imagery, both associated with the French Academy and the 'otherworldly' aspects of Romanticism. While his mature works in Realism were devoted to genre paintings of poor peasants and toiling farmers, there is a subtext rooted in his family's spiritual faith, though it is no longer the main point. This is evident in his iconic paintings The Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz), The Gleaners, and The Angelus.
- Millet's later works, with their looser, more gestural brushwork, exhibit a freer exchange with non-academic painters such as Impressionists Claude Monet and Andres de Santa Maria, as well as inspiring Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Salvador Dalí. Van Gogh, in particular, found a great deal of inspiration in Millet's style and subject matter, being drawn to his images of simplicity in the rural life of farmers.
- The expressiveness of Millet's brushwork in his late painting Birds' Nesters of 1874 communicates the frenzied movements of the hunters and the explosive panic of the birds so effectively that the viewer is able to experience the intensity themselves. The strong emotion of the painting carries overtones of Romanticism. What puts Birds' Nesters within Realism, however, was the grim reality of the hunt and its necessity so that poor peasants could feed themselves and their families.
Biography of Jean-François Millet
Millet was the second child of Jean-Louis-Nicolas and Aimee-Henriette-Adelaide Henry Millet, modest peasants who were part of a large extended family in the rural community of Gruchy. His father appreciated music and beauty in nature, as he would show the boy a blade of grass and say, "Look, how beautiful this is." Millet was his grandmother's favorite, and she encouraged a love of reading and a deep spirituality in him. He attended the local school where he studied Latin and read Saint Augustine and Virgil as well as classic French authors. He also learned other aspects of country life, as he was challenged to fight by older boys at school, and worked long days on his family's farm. His somber sensibility was fundamentally shaped by rural work, as he said, "I have never seen anything but fields since I was born, I try to say as best I can what I saw and felt when I was at work."
Important Art by Jean-François Millet
A man with a bag of seeds across his chest strides, long-legged across the extreme foreground of the canvas as he flings his right arm out to scatter handfuls of seed. As he works a flock (properly known as a 'murder') of crows circles behind him on the left, and highlighted in the distance on the right, a man behind a plow drives his team of oxen, preparing the soil for planting.
By the time Millet created this work, he had already fled Paris that was going through political upheavals and settled in nearby town of Barbizon. What sets Millet's work apart from his Barbizon school compatriots is that, while they emphasized landscape, particularly of the forests, he emphasized the human figure, often a rural laborer isolated in the fields. As he said "My dream is to characterize the type," and here, he creates the common man as laborer. The art historian Alexandra Murphy wrote, "among countless prototypes, the illustrations for October in the Très Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry, depicting a similar sower - capped, wearing leggings, and holding his seed bag in his left hand - is often suggested as a source for Millet. But as with so many of his images, The Sower is more likely to have evolved from the conflation of several well-studied visual memories."
At the Salon of 1850-1851, the painting was both praised and attacked. While the art critic Clement de Ris saw it as "an energetic study full of movement," the critic Théophile Gautier described it as "trowel scrapings." The American poet, Walt Whitman, praised its "sublime murkiness and original pent fury," and saw in it the prototype of Creative Man, sowing the seeds of a new age.
As muscular and heroic as Michelangelo's figures, and looming over the landscape like Goya's giants, the figure occupies much of the foreground, dominating the canvas. Art historian, Anthea Callen, noted, "Millet intentionally transformed his human laborer into a sinewy giant of a man by elongating his proportions...Reinforced by the sower's dominance of the pictorial space and our low viewpoint, his menacing appearance to the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1850 is thus readily explicable."
Despite Millet's liberal use of shadow his use of primary colors allows the figure to stand in stark relief against a field of earth tones. This is a practice used often and to great effect by great renaissance masters including Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. The painting's sense of vigorous movement is underscored by the wealth of dynamic angles that radiate outward from its central figure. The small figure rendered vaguely on the sunlit horizon, tilts back, its angular line further emphasizing the downward movement. The placement of the day's waning light behind the sower emphasizes the shadowiness of foreground. His eyes obscured by his hat, his clothes dirty from his labors, and the crows wheeling after him, eating up the seeds, undoing his efforts all create the sense that he is 'everyman' trying to outrun the gathering darkness.
A group of harvesters, dirty and tired from their labors, their tools scattered around them, rest in front of large, golden-hued stacks of grain. On the left, a man presents a woman to the group.
Millet originally intended to depict the Biblical story of Ruth, a widow who met Boaz, the landowner and kinsman who eventually became her husband, while she was gleaning in the fields. Showing the work at the 1853 Salon, Millet changed the title to Harvesters Resting. One of his few works that show a group, rather than an isolated figure, in a landscape, Millet's tableau-format composition and soft palette indicate a knowledge of the Classical French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin. Though it won a Second Class medal at the Salon, the only time his work won an award, art critics like Paul de Saint-Victor said, "these paupers don't touch me...It disgusts me to see Ruth and Naomi surveying Boaz's field as if on stage in a theatre."
The pictorial emphasis upon the harvesters and the grain stacks behind them allows Ruth and Boaz to appear as figures peripheral to the central focus. What has been emphasized is not the romantic Old Testament story of faith bringing two people together, but rather a contemporary group of hot and dusty field workers resting from their labors. Ruth's face is downcast shyly, and Boaz, acting as intermediary, visually joining her figure with the group field workers. Thus, Millet brings into focus the common laborer's centrality in history and scripture.
Three peasant women gather grains from what's left at the end of a harvest day as the evening shadows gather around them. In the background, a horse-drawn cart full of wheat, haystacks, sheaves of wheat, a man on horseback, a village, and a large crowd of laborers depict the abundance of the harvest.
In Millet's day French farmers followed the Biblical injunction to leave gleanings (or left-over scraps of the grain harvest) in the fields so that poor women and children could live on them. Millet's Gleaners occupy the extreme foreground of the canvas. The grinding poverty of the peasant women, evident in their rough, simple garments, and the back-breaking work of collecting individual grains appear as a contemporaneous depiction of the Biblical directive. Shown at the 1857 Salon, the painting was criticized for its depiction of rural poverty. One reviewer said, "These are homely scarecrows set up in a field: M. Millet's ugliness and vulgarity have no relief."
The painting is dominated by the sculptural figures of the three women. Arms extending toward the ground, the emphasized lines of their shoulders and backs convey the strain of the arduous work. Each woman is depicted engaged in a specific task; one searches for stray grain on the ground, one collects the grains and the third ties them all together. Their faces are hidden, suggesting a sort of homogeneous anonymity rather than individuality. As with The Sower, that anonymity allows them to represent all of the poverty-stricken peasants of France, rather than simply these women. The contrast between the shadows lengthening around the women and the illuminated background where the harvesters are celebrating conveys the distinction between poverty and plenty. The distant steward on horseback, supervising the harvest, represents social order and the privilege of distance from hard labor. The leavings of grain, scattered on the ground, glisten like jewels against the drab color of the ground, yet the viewer cannot help but realize how meager they really are, and how much effort the women must make to simply live. Even so, despite their straightened circumstances, Millet bestows a certain dignity upon them. They display a measure of quiet fortitude amidst the monotony of their efforts, and despite the simplicity of their garb, their figures are robust, accustomed to the rigors of their working life.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jean-François Millet
- Jean-François Millet, Peasant and PainterBy Alfred Sensier
- Drawn into the Light: Jean Francois MilletOur PickBy Alexandra R. Murphy, Clark Art Institute, Frick Art and Historical Center
- Jean-François Millet: [exhibition], Hayward GalleryBy Robert L Herbert