Jean-François Millet - Biography and Legacy
Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy)
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."
Early education and training
Recognizing his talent for drawing, his family sent him to Cherbourg in 1833 to study portrait painting. Millet's studies with the artist, Paul Dumouchel, were interrupted by his father's death in 1835, and he returned home to run the farm, as custom required of the eldest son. His grandmother, however, encouraging him to believe in signs from God, pressed him to return to his art studies, though she admonished him, "I would rather see you dead, my child, than rebellious and unfaithful to God's commandments...Remember, Jean Francois, you are a Christian before you are an artist." His family's stoic faith forever affected him, as he said in later years, "The joyful aspect of life never appears to me. I do not know what it is...The most cheerful things I know are calm and silence."
Millet went on to study with the artist Lucien-Théophile Langlois whose support helped him receive a stipend at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1837, often destitute in "black, muddy, smoky Paris," as he called it, Millet felt socially alienated and said, "I will never be made to bow. I will never have the art of the Parisian drawing rooms forced upon me. A peasant I was born, a peasant I will die." Trying to find inspiration for his own artistic impulses, he frequented the Louvre and was drawn particularly to the work of Nicolas Poussin and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Millet began studying with the noted history painter, Paul Delarouche, an unhappy experience as his teacher dubbed him derisively "the wild man of the woods." When Delarouche refused to support his candidacy for the Prix de Rome, Millet left the artist's studio in defiance and lost his school funding in 1839.
The early 1840s were marked by Millet's occasional artistic success, personal turmoil, and moving back and forth between the rural life of Cherbourg and the artistic world of Paris. After rejecting his first submission in 1839, the Salon accepted one of his portraits the following year. He married Pauline-Virginie Ono in 1841, and the young couple moved to Paris where he hoped to become a successful portraitist. When Ono died in 1844 from tuberculosis and his work was rejected by the Salon, Millet again returned to the family farm.
In 1845 Millet began a relationship with Catherine Lemaire, a young woman who worked as a domestic servant, and their first child, a daughter, was born the following year. Influenced by the revival of interest in Rococo art and hoping for artistic success, he began painting compositions in the Romantic style. The erotic-tinged subject of his new work and his association with Lemaire strained his relationship with his religious family, and he moved with Lemaire to Le Havre and then to Paris in 1849.
In Paris, he became friends with the artists, Théodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, and Charles Jacque, with whom he was to later form the Barbizon School. Millet continued to struggle to form his own artistic style, while still working in established styles. He competed unsuccessfully in a contest to create an allegorical painting for the Republic and showed a historical work, The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, at the 1848 Salon, where the work was negatively received. He also began to suffer bouts of ophthalmic migraine and debilitating rheumatism that would affect him all of his life.
An outbreak of cholera in Paris, combined with the unrest of the February Revolution in 1848, prompted Millet to move Lemaire and their three children to Barbizon, where he joined his artist friends in establishing the Barbizon School. His family settled into a farmhouse that became their permanent residence. In his letters, Millet often wrote of his episodes of ill health and his worries about money, writing at one point, "I really don't know how I'm to fulfill my obligations and go on living." William Morris Hunt, an aspiring artist from a wealthy American family, who hoped to study with Millet, described how, "I found him working in a cellar three feet underground, his canvases covered with mold because of the moisture and because the floor is clay." Millet struggled with poverty all of his life, trying to avoid creditors and bailiffs, worrying about how to obtain the necessities, farming all morning and painting all afternoon so that he felt, as he said, "condemned to hard labor without end."
Friends lent what support they could. Alfred Sensier, a French government official and later Millet's biographer, agreed in 1850 to provide all of Millet's artistic materials in exchange for occasional artworks. Millet's landlord built a small barn-like building on the property to serve as a studio. In the spare setting, Millet kept a collection of rags and clothing that he called "his museum." Keeping their unique colors as suggestions for his paintings, he was particularly fond of blue faded by time to near whiteness.
In 1853 Millet married Catherine Lemaire in a civil ceremony and they eventually had nine children. Millet was to live in Barbizon the rest of his life and his primary friendships were with the artists who also lived there. American architect, Edward Wheelwright, wrote of Millet, "he did not make his society of peasants his neighbors, nor take the peasant...for an ideal of virtue. He had no illusions about the inhabitants of the village...More than once I heard him talk about their defects, their insensitivity to the charms of nature, the narrowness of their feelings, their petty spirit and their low jealousy." Millet was full of contradictions; while he kept a number of farm tools and would demonstrate how to use them to visiting artists, he also impressed them with his erudition, reciting passages from Shakespeare, Dante, La Fontaine, and other classical authors from memory.
He continued painting scenes of rural labor, such as Harvesters Resting in 1852, and The Gleaners, shown in the 1857 Salon where it was heavily criticized for its depiction of poverty. In America, however, his work attracted more favorable attention, as Hunt, who had begun collecting Millet's work, introduced it to the public, and Millet began receiving occasional commissions.
After the Salon of 1864, where his Shepherdess Guarding Her Flock was favorably received, he began to experience a measure of success. In 1867 he exhibited nine paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition, and in 1868 Millet was awarded the Legion of Honor. However, disruption again threatened with the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war, and he and his family sought refuge at Cherbourg where he remained until 1871 and where his work began also to focus on landscape.
After a period of declining health due to migraines and sciatica, Millet arranged for the parish priest to marry him and Catherine Lemaire in a religious ceremony in order to ensure her rights of inheritance and enable his family to have a religious funeral for him. He died on January 20, 1875 at home in Barbizon.
The Legacy of Jean-François Millet
The influence of Millet's art is wide ranging in both the art and literary worlds. Impressionists, like Georges Seurat, admired his draughtsmanship and his depictions of light. Post-Impressionists, most notably Vincent van Gogh, were influenced by his subject matter, sculptural figures, and expressionistic brushwork. His work had an impact internationally upon Janos Thorma, Max Liebermann, Rosa Bonheur, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and William Morris Hunt, among others. Salvador Dalí's obsession with Millet's The Angelus coincided with his own later religiously themed work.
Millet's work also greatly influenced photography and film. Henri Cartier-Bresson, studying his paintings and drawings intensively, was not only inspired by him but passed that inspiration on to other photographers such as Werner Bischoff, Josef Koudelka, Constantin Manos, and Sebastiao Salgado. In particular Millet's The Gleaners has been a creative impetus to subsequent artists. In 2000 the French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda made the documentary, The Gleaners and I. The painting was also used by the artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook in her 2008 performance video The Two Planet Series and appropriated by Banksy in his 2012 work.
The noted American writer, Mark Twain wrote a farcical play, Is He Dead? in which the protagonist, an impoverished Millet, fakes his own death to achieve fame and thus, raise the value of his paintings releasing him from a life of penury. Edwin Markham, Oregon's first poet laureate achieved fame in 1889 with his poem, "Man With a Hoe," based upon Millet's painting. The famous American poet, Walt Whitman, said of his ground-breaking Leaves of Grass," The Leaves are really only Millet in another form - they are the Millet that Walt Whitman has succeeded into putting into words." The theory of noted critic and author John Berger was influenced by Millet's work, writing that "Millet, without a trace of sentimentality, told the truth as he knew it."
Millet also had an inadvertent impact upon the laws affecting the art world. When The Angelus sold for a half million francs in 1889, fourteen years after Millet's death, awareness of the dismal poverty of his family led to droit de suite laws that allow an artist's heirs to receive part of later resale prices.