Born into a prosperous peasant family, Jean Francois Millet (1814-1870) had a good education, and because of his artistic talent he was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He began his career as a portrait painter. His early paintings were accepted by the Paris Salon, but his work was rejected in 1843. He moved with his wife to Le Havre, a harbor town at the mouth of the Seine. They had nine children. He became friends with the painters Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, and Honore Daumier, among others. By 1849, the group had moved to the village of Barbizon in the Fontainebleau Forest.
France was experiencing two revolutions: the Industrial Revolution and a political revolution. Inventions included sewing machines, mechanized looms, and mechanical reapers. Production of wool and cotton cloth for clothing was a major source of income for the rural peasant beyond the production of food. The faster production of cloth caused numerous factories to be built on the outskirts of Paris, resulting in a mass migration from the farm to the city. The 1848 political revolution created chaos and fighting in the streets killed tens of thousands.
Smoke from trains and factories began to fill the Paris air. Barbizon was an undisturbed rural village where artists could paint unpolluted nature. “The Sower” (1850) (40’’x33’’) (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is one of Millet’s first paintings made in Barbizon. His farm upbringing, discussions with Daumier and others about the poor conditions of laborers in France, and his earnest concern for his hardworking Barbizon neighbors influenced his choice of subject matter. While other Barbizon painters concentrated on the unspoiled landscape, Millet focused on the people: “The human side of art is what touches me most.” Millet’s Sower is monumental in scale. He walks vigorously under the twilight sky sowing winter wheat. His legs are wrapped in straw for warmth, his hat is pulled down across his face, hiding his face. He clutches the sack of seeds in his left hand, and he uses his right hand to fling the wheat seeds onto the plowed earth. In the distance a farmer driving two oxen that pull the harrow to cover the sown seeds.
“The Sower” was immediately a source of criticism at the 1850 Salon. To the majority of Parisiens, the painting was ugly and crass, and it depicted the part of society to which they felt superior, the rural poor who offended and disgusted them. Art critic Theophile Gautier said the paint looked like “trowel scrapping.” Few recognized “The Sower” as a work that depicted the dignity of hard work. Millet wanted to show the heroism of the common man. He presented the Academy, the government, and the upper and middle classes of France with a radical social realism that had not been seen before.
Millet continued to paint male and female laborers: shepherds tending their flocks and peasants pushing wheelbarrows, cutting timber, haymaking, carding wool, digging potatoes, knitting, mending, and occasionally resting from their labor. “Woman Baking Bread” (1854) (22”x18’’) depicts a sturdy peasant woman putting a loaf of bread into the oven. The house is made of stone with wide wood plank floors. Dark timber beams support the ceiling. Several handwoven baskets are stacked along the wall. Earlier genre paintings, scenes of ordinary life, depicted clean and tidy houses with simple but comfortable furniture and clean people engaged in less strenuous activity. In “Woman Baking Bread,” the woman is hard at work, her clothes are rough, the house is dark, the floor is messy, stacks of empty baskets are scattered about, and next to the oven are a rake and pitchfork used for work in the field.
Fortunately, Alfred Sensier, a government bureaucrat admired Millet’s peasant paintings, and he offered in 1850 to provide Millet with materials and money in return for some of his drawings and paintings. Sensier’s support allowed Millet to continue his chosen theme. He also could sell work to other buyers. “The Gleaners” (1857) (33”x44”) was exhibited in the Salon of 1857. Gleaners were the poorest of peasants, and by law they were allowed to glean the leftovers after crops had been harvested. Critics at the time considered this painting to be subversive, an affront to the middle and upper classes, and the cause of extremely discomfort to the general public. French art critic Paul de Saint Victor wrote, “His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions; they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty…their ugliness and vulgarity have no relief.” The public agreed with Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economics; these people were responsible for their own misery.
The subject of “The Gleaners” are three poor women of undetermined age, doing grueling work in order to feed themselves and their families. Central to the composition, the farthest figure reaches down as she spots some grain, the middle gathers a handful of grain from the ground, and the closest is about to bend over, a motion repeated again and again. In the distance, several tall stacks of newly harvested wheat provide contrast to the poor pickings left for the gleaners. The rider on a brown horse likely is the overseer for the estate owner. He watches the gleaners to make sure they obey the rules and take only what is allotted to them.
Millet was accused of preaching radical political ideas and of exaggerating the social and economic hardships of the peasants. At the time, the socialist movement was taking hold. Engels’s and Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848. In a review, Charles Baudelaire, French poet, and literary and art critic wrote, “His peasants are pedants who think too highly of themselves. Instead of simply extracting the natural poetry from his subject, M. Millet is desperate to add something to it.”
The 1860’s saw a change in Millet’s popularity. He was commissioned to paint 25 works and given a monthly stipend for the next three years. Emile Gavet, an art dealer and collector, commissioned Millet to make pastel drawings in 1865. They eventually numbered 90 works. Gavet also introduced Millet’s paintings to American buyers. “Shepherdess with her Flock” (1864) (32”x40”) had been an idea Millet had for a painting since 1862. His patron and friend Sensier recalled that the idea “had taken hold of him.” When it was shown in the Salon of 1864, it was called “an exquisite painting” and “a masterpiece.” The painting was awarded a Salon medal, and the government wanted to purchase it. However, it already was promised to a collector.
“Shepherdess with her Flock” depicts a young shepherdess quietly praying in a peaceful evening landscape. She is not a giant figure, nor is she dressed in rags. Her dress in thick and heavy enough for the weather. Her shawl with a fur collar has a decorative pattern, and her red woolen scarf fits snugly over her hair and wraps around her neck. She appears to be saying the rosary. Her flock of sheep is large, gathered together peacefully eating grass. Her loyal dog watches from the right. The sun is beginning to set across the panoramic landscape, and its rays cast a golden glow through the opening in the clouds. Millet’s strong Christian faith is evident. Quietly grazing sheep have long been a reference to the Good Shepherd watching over His flock. The general public preferred this pastoral painting over those of Millet’s rough, grubby peasants. Millet thought of this painting as true to life, depicting the dignity of the hard-working peasant class.
French sentiment was changing. Millet was given a major showing of his paintings in the 1867 Exposition Universelle. In 1869, he was named a Chevalier de Legion d’ Honneur, and in 1870, he was elected to be a member of the Salon jury. A posthumous retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts honored Millet. His work was considered part of the French national heritage. All past criticism of his radical work was done. His influence on future artists was significant. Van Gogh considered him an “essential modern painter who opened the horizons to many.” In 1890, in a letter to his sister, Van Gogh wrote; “Millet! Millet! How that fellow painted humanity and the ‘something on high,’ familiar and yet solemn. To think that that fellow wept as he started painting.”
“I was born as a peasant and shall die as a peasant.” (J.F. Millet)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.