Jean Francois Millet was a French artist, painter and draughtsman, prominent representative of Realism in French art of the 19th cent.
Millet is often called an artist of peasants. He was born on October 4, 1814, in Gruchy village in Normandy. As Jean was the first child of his parents, they put much effort into giving him good education; so, even living in the countryside he got education, equal to the classical gymnasium one.
Unlike in many analogical situations, Millet’s artistic talent was perceived by his family as a heaven-sent gift. So, in 1833 – 1837 he left for Cherbourg, where enrolled training in painting, first under the guidance of the portrait painter named Paul Dumouchel and then – Lucien-Théophile Langlois. A stipend offered by the town, allowed Jean Francois to continue his education in Paris, where studied at the École des Beaux-Arts with Paul Delaroche. In 1840 Millet earned for living as a portraitist. The same year one of his first pieces was accepted to the Salon. His early portraits (“Self-portrait”, “Pauline Ono”, 1841) bear a provincial neoclassicistic flavor with their intensive chiaroscuro contrasts and sculptural modeling of forms.
Millet’s preference to Spanish painting gradually softened his own style. In the artist’s best images, created in 1843 – 1846, he applied “flourishing” manner, when colors are superimposed over each other, forming complicated and sensual textures: “Armand Ono”, 1843, “Jean-Philippe Deleuze”, 1843, “Portrait of a Naval Officer”, 1845.
Most of his time the painter lived in Cherbourg. After death of the first wife in 1844 he spent several months on Havre and then returned to Paris. Along with portraits Jean Francois made bucolic scenes during that time. They resembled works of his contemporary master Diaz de la Peña and corresponded to the traditions, set by Proudhon and Correggio.
After Millet had settled in Paris in 1845 his manner and subjects transformed greatly. Inspiration with Poussin and Michelangelo, as well as with energetic dynamism and angles of Delacroix’s compositions, effected the artist’s choice of themes for canvases and shaped the tendency towards greater heroic character and plasticity of forms, comparing to the proceeding paintings.
In 1846 – 1848 Jean Francois had almost no commissions for portraits (it was hard to get one in the capital), so he switched to the mythological and religious genre (“”Saint Jerome Tempted”, 1849, “Hagar and Ishmael”, 1849, “Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree”, 1847) and well-structured nudes and every-day life scenes.
Millet’s nudes, drawn or painted in oil, are defined by the exquisiteness and considered to be one of the high points of his legacy. Genre episodes – women giving fodder to their hens, or fishermen’s wives desperate to see their spouses – were precessed by a monumental personage of a peasant that appeared in his “Winnower” (1848).
Like many other painters, Jean Francois was deeply influenced by the revolution of 1848 and after that triumph of a plain man peasant characters occupied a special place in his art. The master left for Barbizon in 1949 to complete a governmental order and stayed there for the rest of his life, except for short-term visits to Normandy and Auvergne.
Apart from monumental figure of “Winnower”, exhibited at the salon of 1850 – 1851, the artist was recognized for such canvases as “Harvesters Resting” (1853), “The Gleaners” (1857), “Death and the woodcutter” (1859) “The Man with the Hoe” (1860 – 1862). Millet never published manifestations and was distanced from the politics, yet he always expressed his thoughts and opinion about all things around him. His works had no emotional anguish or protest, depicting people doing routine job. But these seemingly peaceful scenes Millet’s contemporaries perceived in various ways. Some of them greeted its demonstration, others nearly saw them as a call for the revolt. Jean Rousseau, who wrote art reviews for “Le Figaro”, sharply reacted on “The Gleaners”: “Keep kids aways! Here go Gleaners of monsieur Millet. Behind these three Gleaners, on the murky horizon, loom the rioter’s pikes and the scaffolds of 1793”.
Jean Francois had no intent to touch this problem, striving rather for showing a Peasant not as a slave of the soil, but a toiler, whose natural connection with Mother Earth was inexhaustible source of power for humanity. He used to say that. “as 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”.
In 1850s Millet’s sketches and paintings represented images of mighty men and women working in the filed or in woods; their strained facial expressions show us all physical effort they put into their labor. This piece became in 1860s bases for monumental canvases with heroes in static poses that reminded of Poussin and classical tradition (“The Angelus”, 1858, “Woman Shearing Sheep”, 1860, “Potato Planters”, 1861 – 1862, “Shepherdess with her Flock”, 1863 – 1864, “Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields”, 1864).
The author composed them following the harmonious frieze-like rhythm and underlining silhouettes on the background of the vast plains of the Brie region. Their grandiosity is captured with noble, close to primitive simplicity of the image with predominating of sculptural approach to modeling of shapes. Their eloquence is deeply rooted in ages of French artistic school, which had always rejected triviality in favor of solid constructive forms.
In the same period Millet created pictures of a smaller scale then the one he exhibited at the Salons. His interiors of dwellings by their laconism and tranquility could compare to Dutch masters of the 17th cent. and Chardin. Graphic art was no less important for Jean Francois than painting: pencil allowed him to achieve velvet hues of grey and black, which enriched visual and emotional effect from a picture.
Millet’s oeuvre after 1860 witnesses significant changes in his artistic vector. If the artist had liked depicting figures before, then he started clearly demonstrating inclinations to landscape, partly due to his fellowship with Theodore Rousseau – a head of the Barbizon school.
His landscapes depict farmlands around Barbizon (“Winter with Ravens”, 1862), often villages and hills with pastures on the coast of his native Cotentin (“The Cousin Hamlet at Greville”, 1865 – 1873, “The Church at Greville”, c.1871 – 1874). They captivate with technical virtuosity, depth and spiritual fulfillment, produced by hints at invisible presence of human and his contradictions with nature.
In 1866 – 1868, visiting Vichy, the painter created his famous little ink and watercolor etudes, amazing with their modesty and freshness. In parallel, he rendered some big pastel works: we know some etudes of peasants done in this technique. They’re believed to be one of the Millet’s greatest attainments that illustrate his strong qualities. In preparatory drafts to them he separated colors, preserving their self-sufficiency and forestalling Van Gogh’s method.
Millet’s pastels were of great demand. That deprived him of poverty he had experienced in the early years. In 1868 he was conferred with the “Legion d’Honneur” – a sign of his official, though rather reluctant, recognition. His latest landscapes can be organized in thematic cycles defined by delicate lyricism, like “Seasons”.
End of 1860s – beginning of 1870s was marked by Jean Francois’ shift from rationalism to mysticism. “Hunting Birds at Night” is the most peculiar of his last canvases, showing a rather violent scene.
Unlike sculpturous manner of Millet’s early and mature pieces, this one captivates with liberate manner of applying paint that created special fleeting and glowing effect.
The master’s weakened health didn’t allow him to complete a commissioned in 1874 mural in Pantheon. He died in several months on January 20, 1875 in Barbizon.
After his death Millet’s fame and fashion on his art provoked the burst of speculations, bringing prices on his works to incredible levels. For instance, in 1889 during one of the auctionshis “The Angelus” was sold to the American society of artists for the sum over half million of franks. Thanks to numerous American (particularly from Boston) artists and art connoisseurs, Millet’s heritage was highly praise in the USA. That explains the fact that large part of his work is preserved in American museums.
During his life, Millet got his inspiration from the texts of Virgil, Lafontaine and Bible. His legacy combines some traits of French classicism and Dutch baroque (particularly to Breugel), monumentality of pulsating forms and refined coloring. Jean Francois Millet was one of the precursors of Modernism, being an orienteer for such masters as Pissarro, van Gogh and Leger.