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BIOGRAPHY - Jean-François Millet (1814 - 1875)

The life of Jean-François Millet reflects the myriad changes in the art world of mid-nineteenth-century France. Born on 4 October 1814 in the village of Gruchy near Cherbourg, the young Millet grew up in the rural environment that he would later depict so sympathetically. Although he worked on his family’s farm, it was clear from an early age that his artistic skills were considerably more impressive than his agricultural abilities. At 19, he began studying art in Cherbourg with two local painters, Mouchel and Langlois. Their encouragement and support led to a fellowship funded by the City of Cherbourg that enabled the young Millet to study in Paris, where he entered the studio of Paul Delaroche. His Salon debut followed in 1840 with a classically rendered portrait.

The 1840s were years of development and transition for Millet. He married in 1842, and subsequently focused primarily on earning a living through portrait painting and scenes galantes, those light-hearted pastoral images that are usually associated with eighteenth century rococo art. In pursuit of work, he traveled frequently between Paris and Cherbourg from 1840-44, finally settling in Le Havre in 1845. By 1846, however, he was back in Paris where he again cultivated hopes for a Salon success. In 1847, Salon juries rejected his painting of St. Jerome, but in 1848, the mythological Oedipus Taken Down From the Tree won admission to the all-important exhibition. It was well received by the critics, particularly Théophile Gautier who praised the painting while remaining skeptical of what he perceived as Millet’s overly free brushwork.

The watershed years for Millet occurred in 1847-48 as he became friends with a group of artists who had been redefining painting outside the confines of the academic tradition. Some of them were landscape painters like Théodore Rousseau, Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, and Charles Jacque; some were figure painters interested in rural life like Jules Dupré or Constant Troyon; and some were most interested in social commentary like Honoré Daumier. Both individually and collectively, this group of artists pushed the boundaries of what the FrenchAcademy found acceptable, and for many years, the Salon juries had routinely rejected their work. In 1848, however, revolution swept through Europe bringing a new spirit of progressive republicanism. For French artists, the establishment of the SecondRepublic [1848-1852] meant that the Salon juries would be more democratic, and that a much wider range of work would be displayed.

Millet’s fortunes took a turn for the better almost immediately when the new Minister of the Interior, Ledru-Rollin, purchased Winnower [now destroyed] in 1848. In 1849, the Republican government commissioned a painting called Haymakers Resting, and Millet’s income began to improve. Simultaneously, Millet and his friend Charles Jacque moved their families out of Paris to the small village of Barbizon in the Forest of Fontainebleau. In part, this move was motivated by a desire to escape the cholera epidemic in Paris, but it was also an indication of how deeply connected these painters felt to the rural life of France. Théodore Rousseau had already moved to the village in the 1830s, and begun his campaign, both artistic and political, to save the diminishing forests of the region. Likewise, Millet was very conscious of the impact of industrialization on the farmers of France, and he was especially aware of the precarious circumstances under which many farm workers lived. His 1850 painting, The Sower, exhibited at the Realist Salon of 1850-51, challenged the bourgeois public to reflect on the conditions in which their food was produced. Needless to say, The Sower did not find a welcoming audience.

Once settled into his home at Barbizon, Millet rarely left except for summer visits to his family near Cherbourg. He continued to focus on images of French peasants and rural life, often imbuing these figures with heroic qualities, as in The Gleaners of 1857. In what is probably his most famous painting, Millet depicted three peasant women bending down to gather the left over wheat that remains after the harvest, concurrently revealing the desperate conditions of their lives and the dignity with which they approach their menial task. The classical composition and the golden light of this painting found acceptance at the 1857 Salon, but like The Sower, it also made the French public uncomfortable. In 1863, Millet exhibited an even more controversial painting, Man with a Hoe, in which he makes no effort to disguise the sheer drudgery of the farm laborer’s life. Parisians were repulsed by the man’s brutish appearance as he leans heavily on his hoe, powerfully silhouetted against the horizon. The accepted interpretation of this image was that it was a socialist protest, and perhaps even an ominous hint that another revolution might be just around the corner.

In contrast to the French perspective on Millet’s work, American collectors began acquiring his paintings in the 1850s and continued to do so well into the twentieth century. The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the fact that Americans did not perceive these images as political threats, but rather as nostalgic glimpses of an agrarian world that seemed appealingly secure when compared to the hardships of life on the Great Plains. After winning a First Class medal in the Salon of 1864, Millet’s sales began to improve, and his financial concerns were largely put to rest.

Between 1865 and 1869, Millet also turned his attention creating over 100 large pastels. These exquisite works, though fragile, offer snapshots of peasant life in a format that allows the artist to explore the effects of light and color more easily than in oil. It is no surprise that both Degas and Van Gogh were profoundly influenced by Millet’s pastels.

In the last decade of his life, Millet received long-overdue recognition from the French government: a Legion of Honor award in 1868, and a commission to decorate a chapel in the Panthéon in 1874. Sadly, he died on 20 January 1875, leaving the chapel walls bare.

Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.

Selected Museums

Art Institute of Chicago Boston
Museum of Fine Arts Cleveland
Museum of Art FineArtsMuseum of San Francisco
J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
National Gallery of Art, London
National Gallery of Art, Ottawa
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
National Museum of Wales, Cardiff
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam