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Jean-François Millet

French Painter

Jean-François Millet Photo
Movements and Styles: Realism, The Barbizon School, Naturalism

Born: October 4, 1814 - Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy)

Died: January 20, 1875 - Barbizon, France

"A peasant I was born, a peasant I will die."

Jean-François Millet Signature

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Jean-François Millet Photo

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."

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