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Jean-François Millet

French Painter

Jean-François Millet Photo
Born: October 4, 1814
Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy)
Died: January 20, 1875
Barbizon, France
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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

Biography of Jean-François Millet

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."

Important Art by Jean-François Millet

The Sower (1850)

The Sower (1850)

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.

Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (1850-1853)

Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (1850-1853)

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.

The Gleaners (1857)

The Gleaners (1857)

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.

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jean-François Millet Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Aug 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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