Artist
Jean-François Millet
French painter

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Jean-François Millet
French painter
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Birth Date

October 04, 1814

Death Date

January 20, 1875

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If you invited Jean-François Millet to a house party back in 1870, he’d either paint the guests as weary victims of life’s monotony or skip the shindig entirely to tend to his vegetable patch.

Life was not easy for Millet, a nature fiend for whom lucky breaks always came too little, too late. Born to a farming family in France, Millet would hold onto two values from childhood: his Christian faith and the land he sowed. Despite his profound influence on French art (he inspired Monet and Seurat and was a frequent character in van Gogh’s letters) Millet lived from paycheck to paycheck, as short on funds as he was on love for Parisian smog. Millet once proclaimed that he was born a peasant and would die one, a creed he backed up with his compact barn house and longtime residence in rural Barbizon. There, he painted peasant farmers in varying degrees of distress and discomfiting toil, sharing in their lot himself to keep his family afloat.

Millet’s life was a string of tragedies. His first wife died of consumption in 1843, the same year he was turned down by the Paris Salon. His tour de force, The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, was so reviled by its audience that Millet painted over it when supplies were scarce. Millet’s masterpiece The Angelus would fetch a pretty penny, but only when it was resold after his passing. He held Théodore Rousseau as he passed away, a close friend who once bought Millet’s painting under another name to aid him during a financial crisis. The same year that Millet was chosen for the Salon jury, the Franco-Prussian War forced him to relocate with his family. As Millet’s fame finally grew, a slow process due to his falsified reputation as a socialist agitator, his poor health slowly robbed him of his livelihood. Despite setbacks, Millet gifted 19th century France with some of the most human artworks audiences had ever seen, and paintings as unconventional as his nickname “Wild Man of the Woods."

Sources

Sources

  1. “Jean-Francois Millet.” Encyclopedia of Visual Artists. Accessed June 29, 2018. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/millet.htm.
  2. “Jean-Francois Millet.” The J. Paul Getty Museum. Accessed June 29, 2018. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/581/jean-franois-millet-fren....
  3. “Jean-François Millet.” Wikipedia. June 3, 2018. Accessed June 29, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-François_Millet.
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Featured Books & Academic Sources

The following is an excerpt from "Jean Francois Millet" by Estelle M. Hurll, published in 1900:

The distinctive features of Millet's art are so marked that the most inexperienced observer easily identifies his work. As a painter of rustic subjects, he is unlike any other artists who have entered the same field, even those who have taken his own themes. We get at the heart of the matter when we say that Millet derived his art directly from nature. "If I could only do what I like," he said, "I would paint nothing that was not the result of an impression directly received from nature, whether in landscape or in figure." His pictures are convincing evidence that he acted upon this theory. They have a peculiar quality of genuineness beside which all other rustic art seems forced and artificial.

The human side of life touched him most deeply, and in many of his earlier pictures, landscape was secondary. Gradually he grew into the larger conception of a perfect harmony between man and his environment. Henceforth landscape ceased to be a mere setting or background in a figure picture, and became an organic part of the composition. As a critic once wrote of the Shepherdess, "the earth and sky, the scene and the actors, all answer one another, all hold together, belong together." The description applies equally well to many other pictures and particularly to the Angelus, the Sower, and the Gleaners. In all these, landscape and figure are interdependent, fitting together in a perfect unity.

As a painter of landscapes, Millet mastered a wide range of the effects of changing light during different hours of the day. The mists of early morning in Filling the Water-Bottles; the glare of noonday in the Gleaners; the sunset glow in the Angelus and the Shepherdess; the sombre twilight of the Sower; and the glimmering lamplight of the Woman Sewing, each found perfect interpretation. Though showing himself capable of representing powerfully the more violent aspects of nature, he preferred as a rule the normal and quiet.

In figure painting Millet sought neither grace nor beauty, but expression. That he regarded neither of these first two qualities as intrinsically unworthy, we may infer from the grace of the Sower, and the naïve beauty of the Shepherdess and the Woman Sewing. But that expression was of paramount interest to him we see clearly in the Angelus and the Man with the Hoe. The leading characteristic of his art is strength, and he distrusted the ordinary elements of prettiness as taking something from the total effect he wished to produce. "Let no one think that they can force me to prettify my types," he said. "I would rather do nothing than express myself feebly."

It was always his first aim to make his people look as if they belonged to their station. The "mute inglorious Milton" and Maud Muller with her "nameless longings" had no place on his canvases. His was the genuine peasant of field and farm, no imaginary denizen of the poets' Arcady. "The beautiful is the fitting," was his final summary of æsthetic theory, and the theory was put into practice on every canvas.

In point of composition Millet's pictures have great excellence. "I try not to have things look as if chance brought them together," he said, "but as if they had a necessary bond between them." So nothing is accidental, but every object, however small, is an indispensable part of the whole scheme.

An important characteristic of his work is its power to suggest the third dimension of space. The figures have a solid, tangible appearance, as if actually alive. The Gleaners, the Woman Churning, and the Man with the Hoe are thoroughly convincing in their reality.

The picture of the Gleaners especially has that so-called "quality of circumambient light" which circulates about the objects, so to speak, and gives them position in space. Millet's landscapes also have a depth of spaciousness which reaches into infinite distance. The principles of composition are applied in perspective as well as laterally. We can look into the picture, through it, and beyond it, as if we were standing in the presence of nature.

Mr. Bernhard Berenson goes so far as to say that this art of "space composition," as he terms it, can "directly communicate religious emotion," and explains on this ground the devotional influence of Perugino's works, which show so remarkable a feeling for space. If he is right, it is on this principle, rather than because of its subject, that the Angelus is, as it has sometimes been called, "one of the greatest religious paintings of the age."

While Millet's art is, in its entirety, quite unique, there are certain interesting points of resemblance between his work and that of some older masters. He is akin to Rembrandt both in his indifference to beauty and in his intense love of human nature. Millet's indifference to beauty is the more remarkable because in this he stood alone in his day and generation, while in the northern art of the seventeenth century, of which Rembrandt is an exponent, beauty was never supreme.

As a lover of human nature, Millet's sympathies, though no less intense than Rembrandt's, were less catholic. His range of observation was limited to peasant life, while the Dutch master painted all classes and conditions of men. Yet both alike were profound students of character and regarded expression as the chief element of beauty. Rembrandt, however, sought expression principally in the countenance, and Millet had a fuller understanding of the expressiveness of the entire body. The work of each thus complements that of the other.

Millet's passion for figure expression was first worked out in painting the nude. When he abandoned such subjects for the homelier themes of labor, he gave no less attention to the study of form and attitude. The simple clothing of the peasant is cut so loosely as to give entire freedom of motion to the body, and it is worn so long that it shapes itself perfectly to the figure. The body thus clad is scarcely inferior to the nude in assuming the fine lines of an expressive pose.

Millet's instinct for pose was that of a sculptor. Many of the figures for his pictures were first carefully modelled in wax or clay. Transferred to canvas they are drawn in the strong simple outlines of a statue. It is no extravagant flight of fancy which has likened him to Michelangelo. In the strength and seriousness of his conceptions, the bold sweep of his lines, and, above all, in the impression of motion which he conveys, he has much in common with the great Italian master. Like Michelangelo, Millet gives first preference to the dramatic moment when action is imminent. The Sower is in the act of casting the seed into the ground, as David is in the act of stretching his sling. As we look, we seem to see the hand complete its motion. So also the Gleaners, the Women Filling the Water-Bottles, and the Potato Planters are all portrayed in attitudes of performance.

When Millet represents repose it is as an interval of suspended action, not as the end of completed work. The Shepherdess pauses but a moment in her walk and will immediately move on again. The man and woman of the Angelus rest only for the prayer and then resume their work. The Man with the Hoe snatches but a brief respite from his labors. The impression of power suggested by his figure, even in immobility, recalls Michelangelo's Jeremiah.

To the qualities which are reminiscent of Michelangelo Millet adds another in which he is allied to the Greeks. This is his tendency towards generalization. It is the typical rather than the individual which he strives to present. "My dream," he once wrote, "is to characterize the type." So his figures, like those of Greek sculpture, reproduce no particular model, but are the general type deduced from the study of many individuals.

Sources

Sources

  1. Hurll, Estelle M. "Jean-Francois Millet: A Collection of Fifteen Pictures and a Portrait of the Painter with Introduction and Interpretation" (1900) Introduction. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13119/13119-h/13119-h.htm

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet (French: [milɛ]; October 4, 1814 – January 20, 1875) was a French painter and one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. Millet is noted for his scenes of peasant farmers; he can be categorized as part of the Realism art movement.

Life and work

Youth

Millet was the first child of Jean-Louis-Nicolas and Aimée-Henriette-Adélaïde Henry Millet, members of the farming community in the village of Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy), close to the coast. Under the guidance of two village priests—one of them was vicar Jean Lebrisseux—Millet acquired a knowledge of Latin and modern authors. But soon he had to help his father with the farm-work; because Millet was the eldest of the sons. So all the farmer's work was familiar to him: to mow, make hay, bind the sheaves, thresh, winnow, spread manure, plow, sow, etc. All these motifs would return in his later art. This stopped when he was 18 and sent by his father to Cherbourg in 1833, to study with a portrait painter named Paul Dumouchel. By 1835 he was studying full-time with Lucien-Théophile Langlois, a pupil of Baron Gros, in Cherbourg. A stipend provided by Langlois and others enabled Millet to move to Paris in 1837, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts with Paul Delaroche. In 1839 his scholarship was terminated, and his first submission to the Salon was rejected.

Paris

After his first painting, a portrait, was accepted at the Salon of 1840, Millet returned to Cherbourg to begin a career as a portrait painter. However, the following year he married Pauline-Virginie Ono, and they moved to Paris. After rejections at the Salon of 1843 and Pauline's death by consumption, Millet returned again to Cherbourg. In 1845 Millet moved to Le Havre with Catherine Lemaire, whom he would marry in a civil ceremony in 1853; they would have nine children and remain together for the rest of Millet's life. In Le Havre he painted portraits and small genre pieces for several months, before moving back to Paris.

It was in Paris in the middle 1840s that Millet befriended Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz, Charles Jacque, and Théodore Rousseau, artists who, like Millet, would become associated with the Barbizon school; Honoré Daumier, whose figure draftsmanship would influence Millet's subsequent rendering of peasant subjects; and Alfred Sensier, a government bureaucrat who would become a lifelong supporter and eventually the artist's biographer. In 1847 his first Salon success came with the exhibition of a painting Oedipus Taken down from the Tree, and in 1848 his Winnower was bought by the government.

The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, Millet's most ambitious work at the time, was unveiled at the Salon of 1848, but was scorned by art critics and the public alike. The painting eventually disappeared shortly thereafter, leading historians to believe that Millet destroyed it. In 1984, scientists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston x-rayed Millet's 1870 painting The Young Shepherdess looking for minor changes, and discovered that it was painted over Captivity. It is now believed that Millet reused the canvas when materials were in short supply during the Franco-Prussian War.

Barbizon

In 1849, Millet painted Harvesters, a commission for the state. In the Salon of that year, he exhibited Shepherdess Sitting at the Edge of the Forest, a very small oil painting which marked a turning away from previous idealized pastoral subjects, in favor of a more realistic and personal approach. In June of that year, he settled in Barbizon with Catherine and their children.

In 1850 Millet entered into an arrangement with Sensier, who provided the artist with materials and money in return for drawings and paintings, while Millet simultaneously was free to continue selling work to other buyers as well. At that year's Salon, he exhibited Haymakers and The Sower, his first major masterpiece and the earliest of the iconic trio of paintings that would include The Gleaners and The Angelus.

From 1850 to 1853, Millet worked on Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz), a painting he would consider his most important, and on which he worked the longest. Conceived to rival his heroes Michelangelo and Poussin, it was also the painting that marked his transition from the depiction of symbolic imagery of peasant life to that of contemporary social conditions. It was the only painting he ever dated, and was the first work to garner him official recognition, a second-class medal at the 1853 salon.

The Gleaners

This is one of the most well known of Millet's paintings, The Gleaners (1857). While Millet was walking the fields around Barbizon, one theme returned to his pencil and brush for seven years—gleaning—the centuries-old right of poor women and children to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest. He found the theme an eternal one, linked to stories from the Old Testament. In 1857, he submitted the painting The Gleaners to the Salon to an unenthusiastic, even hostile, public.

(Earlier versions include a vertical composition painted in 1854, an etching of 1855–56 which directly presaged the horizontal format of the painting now in the Musée d'Orsay.)

A warm golden light suggests something sacred and eternal in this daily scene where the struggle to survive takes place. During his years of preparatory studies, Millet contemplated how best to convey the sense of repetition and fatigue in the peasants' daily lives. Lines traced over each woman's back lead to the ground and then back up in a repetitive motion identical to their unending, backbreaking labor. Along the horizon, the setting sun silhouettes the farm with its abundant stacks of grain, in contrast to the large shadowy figures in the foreground. The dark homespun dresses of the gleaners cut robust forms against the golden field, giving each woman a noble, monumental strength.

The Angelus

The painting was commissioned by Thomas Gold Appleton, an American art collector based in Boston, Massachusetts. Appleton previously studied with Millet's friend, the Barbizon painter Constant Troyon. It was completed during the summer of 1857. Millet added a steeple and changed the initial title of the work, Prayer for the Potato Crop to The Angelus when the purchaser failed to take possession of it in 1859. Displayed to the public for the first time in 1865, the painting changed hands several times, increasing only modestly in value, since some considered the artist's political sympathies suspect. Upon Millet's death a decade later, a bidding war between the US and France ensued, ending some years later with a price tag of 800,000 gold francs.

The disparity between the apparent value of the painting and the poor estate of Millet's surviving family was a major impetus in the invention of the droit de suite, intended to compensate artists or their heirs when works are resold.

Later years

Despite mixed reviews of the paintings he exhibited at the Salon, Millet's reputation and success grew through the 1860s. At the beginning of the decade, he contracted to paint 25 works in return for a monthly stipend for the next three years and in 1865, another patron, Emile Gavet, began commissioning pastels for a collection that would eventually include 90 works. In 1867, the Exposition Universelle hosted a major showing of his work, with the Gleaners, Angelus, and Potato Planters among the paintings exhibited. The following year, Frédéric Hartmann commissioned Four Seasons for 25,000 francs, and Millet was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

In 1870, Millet was elected to the Salon jury. Later that year, he and his family fled the Franco-Prussian War, moving to Cherbourg and Gréville, and did not return to Barbizon until late in 1871. His last years were marked by financial success and increased official recognition, but he was unable to fulfill government commissions due to failing health. On January 3, 1875, he married Catherine in a religious ceremony. Millet died on January 20, 1875.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Jean-François Millet.