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A Deep Dive Into the Art of Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet, an important inspiration for the work of Vincent Van Gogh, was a prolific French painter in the 19th century. Categorized as a Realist, Millet often depicted rural life and agricultural laborers with striking and somber detail. Due to his upbringing, Millet saw godliness and virtue in physical labor. Although he produced numerous landscapes later in his career, Millet’s best known works portray peasants toiling in the rural terrain. Once asked about his art, Millet responded, “The human side of art is what touches me most.” Read on to join us in a deep dive on the art of Jean-François Millet and the sensational, thought-provoking artwork he produced.


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The Early Life of Jean-François Millet


Millet was born in 1814 to a close-knit farming family located in the village of Gruchy, Normandy. Living in comfortable prosperity off their own land, Millet’s family wanted him to have an education and sought instruction from two local priests. Millet learned Latin and developed his life-long interest in literature, but most importantly showed a talent for drawing and painting at a very early age. The french artist was sent to Cherbourg in 1833 to work under a local portrait painter, Bon Dumouchel, and Lucien-Théophile Langlois two years later. Once he honed his talents, his instructors and the City of Cherbourg provided him with a stipend that allowed him to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as the pupil of the very popular history painter Paul Delaroche. During his first year in Paris, he was fairly unhappy as he unsuccessfully applied for the Rome Prize and had his stipend terminated. This resulted in Millet leaving his instructor, Delaroche, and returning to Cherbourg.


On his return to the city that helped him master his craft, Millet attempted to establish himself as a portrait painter. His first painting during this time, a portrait, was accepted by the Paris Salon of 1840. However, the return of one of his portraits for poor likeness caused him to try his luck in Paris once more, where the french artist met his first wife, the frail Pauline-Virginie Ono, then just barely twenty years old.



Portrait of Pauline Ono by Jean-François Millet, circo 1841, Musée Thomas-Henry (Cherbourg)

Early Work of Jean-François Millet


Millet's works produced during the early 1840s were heavily influenced by the Spanish painters he studied in the Galerie Espagnole, or the “Spanish Gallery,” at the Louvre. This style may be identified by the stark contrasts of light and shadow as seen in the portrait he completed of his wife, Pauline Ono, in 1841. Stripped of any worldly elegance, Pauline Ono is depicted simplistically yet elegantly in Millet's painting. The modest clothing and setting rendered in this painting evoke the artist’s humble roots and mindset. When Ono died in 1844 from tuberculosis and Millet’s work was rejected from the Salon, he once again returned to the rural life of Cherbourg to seek solace.


Finding His Artistic Style


On his quest to form his own artistic style, Millet met influential artists Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena and Charles Jacque during the early 1850s in Paris. This group would later go on to form the Barbizon school. Millet also met his life-long spouse, Catherine Lermaire, at this time in Paris with whom he would have nine children. This pivotal time in Millet’s life allowed the artist to develop the artistic style for which he is now known.



The Sower by Jean-François Millet, 1950, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

A cholera outbreak as well as the February Revolution provoked Millet to move his wife and children out of Paris to Barbizon, where he joined the aforementioned artists in establishing the Barbizon school. The Sower, exhibited at the 1850 Salon, represents Millet’s artistic interests and style. Although negatively critiqued for elevating a lowly peasant at a time when the rural poor were degraded and seen as a threat to the bourgeois society, The Sower represents the profound personal beliefs that Millet rendered in his paintings. While his fellow Barbizon school painters mostly depicted rural landscapes and foliage, Millet began to focus on the figure. How the individual is represented in rural landscapes became important to Millet, such as this long-legged man striding through the intense foreground of the canvas, flinging handfuls of seeds as he goes.


The Barbizon school that Millet had a part in founding had a revolutionary impact on the art world. Prior to this time, French artists were rigorously trained in a neoclassical style meant to emulate works from the Renaissance and classical antiquity. Rural landscapes and those who inhabited them were seen as very low in the hierarchy of subjects of paintings. However, despite differing in age, training, style and livelihoods, Millet, Rousseau, Troyon, Diaz de la Pena and Jacque began elevating a different kind of artistic appreciation. These artists found beauty in their native landscape and attempted to paint nature as a subject of the utmost importance. Although Millet and his comrades experienced some push back for doing so, they ultimately highlighted the majesty of rural landscapes and the lives of the peasant.



The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet, 1857, Musée d'Orsay (Paris)

An example of work Millet produced for the Barbizon school, The Gleaners is perhaps the artist’s best-known works and is a depiction of peasant life in rural France. Three peasant women collecting grain from a field dominate the canvas. Arms extended towards the ground, the sharp lines and angles of these figures represent the strain of the arduous work peasants of the time had to endure. French farmers in this era would perform the practice of gleaning, meaning they would leave left-over scraps of the grain harvest for those in need to collect and live off of.


Millet highlights the work these women are doing with dignity. In Millet’s work, the spare crops glisten among the drab colors of the ground, drawing attention to the meagerness of the task, and how much work these women in rural France must accomplish to simply live. Exhibited at the 1857 Salon, this piece was criticized for its depiction of rural poverty. One art critic stated, “These are homely scarecrows set up in a field: Millet’s ugliness and vulgarity have no relief.” Despite pushback, Millet and other members of the Barbizon school continued to elevate individuals of poverty with acknowledgement and respect.

Through his successes and failures as a realist artist, Millet had a complicated relationship with critics and the public. Due to France’s tumultuous political climate of the time, people were incredibly class-conscious and were suspicious or even judgmental of those celebrating the “nobility” of the peasant class. However, Millet’s themes of naturalism, personal creed and un-romanticized imagery paved the way for successive modern movements in the art world.


The Abduction of the Sabine Women by Jean-François Millet, 1886, M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Millet’s Later Work


Millet’s later works saw a departure from Realism with looser and more gestural brush work. This ushered in the Impressionist movement and influenced the likes of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Abduction of the Sabine Women, currently owned by M.S. Rau, is exemplary of Millet’s stylistic advancements with its broad, quick brushstrokes and blurred contrast of light and shadow. It is not the usual subject matter seen in Millet’s oeuvre; instead, it captures a popular mythological narrative. The dynamic oil on canvas represents an incident in Roman mythology when Roman men abducted the women of a neighboring region — the Sabine — to take as wives. The subject matter is conveyed dramatically and stands apart from Millet’s other works with its Romantic treatment.


Jean-François Millet produced a wide range of works that would influence artists from all demographics. Raised in a religious and humble farming family, Millet depicted what he knew in his works with honor and appreciation. While other artists of the Barbizon school painted rural landscapes, Millet placed figures in these settings to further elevate the individuals that inhabit them. This set Millet apart from his artistic counterparts. Although many critics and the public criticized him for the socialist feel of his works, he continued to advance these artistic tendencies. With great influence, the legacy of Jean-François Millet lives on.


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