MovementsArtistsTimelinesIdeasBlog
About us
Artists Jean-François Millet
Jean-François Millet Photo

Jean-François Millet

French Painter

Movements and Styles: Realism, Barbizon School, Naturalism

Born: October 4, 1814 - Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy)

Died: January 20, 1875 - Barbizon, France

Jean-François Millet Timeline

Quotes

"Art is not a diversion. It is a conflict, a complication of wheels in which one is crushed."
Jean-François Millet
"If I could only do what I like, I would paint nothing that was not the result of an impression directly received from nature, whether in landscape or in figure."
Jean-François Millet
"The beautiful is the fitting,"
Jean-François Millet
"I try not to have things look as if chance brought them together, but as if they had a necessary bond between them."
Jean-François Millet
"My dream is to characterize the type."
Jean-François Millet
"Give me signboards to paint, if you will, but at least let me think out my subjects in my own fashion and finish the work that I have to do, in peace."
Jean-François Millet
"My critics are educated people and of taste, I imagine; But I cannot put myself in their shoes; And as I have never seen anything other than the fields in my life, I try to say as I can what I have seen and experienced when I was working on it."
Jean-François Millet
"To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, even if you think me a socialist, that the human side of art is what touches me most."
Jean-François Millet
"The mission of art is a mission of love, not of hate."
Jean-François Millet
"You must thoroughly feel what you are going to draw."
Jean-François Millet

"A peasant I was born, a peasant I will die."

Jean-François Millet Signature

Synopsis

French painter Jean-François Millet, whose humble manner of living stands in stark contrast to the impact his work had on many artists who succeeded him, saw Godliness and virtue in physical labor. Best known for his paintings of peasants toiling in rural landscapes, and the religious sub-texts that often accompanied them, he turned his back on the academic style of his early artistic education and co-founded the Barbizon school near Fontainbleau in Normandy, France with fellow artist Théodore Rousseau.

Millet saw his share of successes and failures with both critics and the public. People were deeply class-conscious amid France's politically volatile climate and perceived with suspicion anyone celebrating the 'nobility' of the peasant-class. Nevertheless, his personal convictions, use of Naturalism, and unromanticized imagery helped lay a foundation for later modern movements in art, and in due course, he became highly-regarded within the art world. Consequently, his practice impacted markedly the methods of many later painters, photographers, and writers who saw Millet as an inspiration, mentor, and friend.

Key Ideas

Raised in a deeply religious rural farming family, Millet saw the peasant-class as most nobly fulfilling the words of the Old Testament Book of Genesis 3:19, which read: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This served as a subtext in most of his paintings throughout his Barbizon years.
While most artists of the Barbizon school concentrated on landscapes painted en plein air, Millet preferred to depict the life of ceaseless toil required of the peasant class, a social stratum for which he had great respect. He saw himself as being thoroughly of the peasant-class, stating his discomfort in the drawing rooms of the upper classes, and thus resolved to paint only that which he knew best.
Millet depicted his peasants in the same manner earlier movements reserved for more exalted subjects. As a result, his shepherds and farm laborers occupied large spaces on the canvas formerly occupied by historic or Biblical figures, or mythological heroes. Consequently, many of his detractors saw him as an unspoken social critic with a leftist viewpoint, as were fellow Realists Honoré Daumier and Gustave Courbet. It was a time of social unrest in France brought about by the February Revolution of 1848, which did away with the monarchy. This was followed only months later by the bloody, but unsuccessful June Days Uprising in Paris, a rebellion by working-class people who saw their newly elected government becoming increasingly conservative. Millet, however, insisted his interests bore no relation to the politics of the time.
Millet's paintings often display traits of his earlier art education during the Romantic period. Previous to the Barbizon school his subjects incorporated mythological and religious imagery, both associated with the French Academy and the 'otherworldly' aspects of Romanticism. While his mature works in Realism were devoted to genre paintings of poor peasants and toiling farmers, there is a subtext rooted in his family's spiritual faith, though it is no longer the main point. This is evident in his iconic paintings The Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz), The Gleaners, and The Angelus.
Millet's later works, with their looser, more gestural brushwork, exhibit a freer exchange with non-academic painters such as Impressionists Claude Monet and Andres de Santa Maria, as well as inspiring Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Salvador Dalí. Van Gogh, in particular, found a great deal of inspiration in Millet's style and subject matter, being drawn to his images of simplicity in the rural life of farmers.
The expressiveness of Millet's brushwork in his late painting Birds' Nesters of 1874 communicates the frenzied movements of the hunters and the explosive panic of the birds so effectively that the viewer is able to experience the intensity themselves. The strong emotion of the painting carries overtones of Romanticism. What puts Birds' Nesters within Realism, however, was the grim reality of the hunt and its necessity so that poor peasants could feed themselves and their families.

Most Important Art

Jean-François Millet Famous Art

The Sower (1850)

A man with a bag of seeds across his chest strides, long-legged across the extreme foreground of the canvas as he flings his right arm out to scatter handfuls of seed. As he works a flock (properly known as a 'murder') of crows circles behind him on the left, and highlighted in the distance on the right, a man behind a plow drives his team of oxen, preparing the soil for planting.

By the time Millet created this work, he had already fled Paris that was going through political upheavals and settled in nearby town of Barbizon. What sets Millet's work apart from his Barbizon school compatriots is that, while they emphasized landscape, particularly of the forests, he emphasized the human figure, often a rural laborer isolated in the fields. As he said "My dream is to characterize the type," and here, he creates the common man as laborer. The art historian Alexandra Murphy wrote, "among countless prototypes, the illustrations for October in the Très Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry, depicting a similar sower - capped, wearing leggings, and holding his seed bag in his left hand - is often suggested as a source for Millet. But as with so many of his images, The Sower is more likely to have evolved from the conflation of several well-studied visual memories."

At the Salon of 1850-1851, the painting was both praised and attacked. While the art critic Clement de Ris saw it as "an energetic study full of movement," the critic Théophile Gautier described it as "trowel scrapings." The American poet, Walt Whitman, praised its "sublime murkiness and original pent fury," and saw in it the prototype of Creative Man, sowing the seeds of a new age.

As muscular and heroic as Michelangelo's figures, and looming over the landscape like Goya's giants, the figure occupies much of the foreground, dominating the canvas. Art historian, Anthea Callen, noted, "Millet intentionally transformed his human laborer into a sinewy giant of a man by elongating his proportions...Reinforced by the sower's dominance of the pictorial space and our low viewpoint, his menacing appearance to the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1850 is thus readily explicable."

Despite Millet's liberal use of shadow his use of primary colors allows the figure to stand in stark relief against a field of earth tones. This is a practice used often and to great effect by great renaissance masters including Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. The painting's sense of vigorous movement is underscored by the wealth of dynamic angles that radiate outward from its central figure. The small figure rendered vaguely on the sunlit horizon, tilts back, its angular line further emphasizing the downward movement. The placement of the day's waning light behind the sower emphasizes the shadowiness of foreground. His eyes obscured by his hat, his clothes dirty from his labors, and the crows wheeling after him, eating up the seeds, undoing his efforts all create the sense that he is 'everyman' trying to outrun the gathering darkness.
Read More ...

Jean-François Millet Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Millet was the second child of Jean-Louis-Nicolas and Aimee-Henriette-Adelaide Henry Millet, modest peasants who were part of a large extended family in the rural community of Gruchy. His father appreciated music and beauty in nature, as he would show the boy a blade of grass and say, "Look, how beautiful this is." Millet was his grandmother's favorite, and she encouraged a love of reading and a deep spirituality in him. He attended the local school where he studied Latin and read Saint Augustine and Virgil as well as classic French authors. He also learned other aspects of country life, as he was challenged to fight by older boys at school, and worked long days on his family's farm. His somber sensibility was fundamentally shaped by rural work, as he said, "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."

Early education and training

Recognizing his talent for drawing, his family sent him to Cherbourg in 1833 to study portrait painting. Millet's studies with the artist, Paul Dumouchel, were interrupted by his father's death in 1835, and he returned home to run the farm, as custom required of the eldest son. His grandmother, however, encouraging him to believe in signs from God, pressed him to return to his art studies, though she admonished him, "I would rather see you dead, my child, than rebellious and unfaithful to God's commandments...Remember, Jean Francois, you are a Christian before you are an artist." His family's stoic faith forever affected him, as he said in later years, "The joyful aspect of life never appears to me. I do not know what it is...The most cheerful things I know are calm and silence."

Millet went on to study with the artist Lucien-Théophile Langlois whose support helped him receive a stipend at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1837, often destitute in "black, muddy, smoky Paris," as he called it, Millet felt socially alienated and said, "I will never be made to bow. I will never have the art of the Parisian drawing rooms forced upon me. A peasant I was born, a peasant I will die." Trying to find inspiration for his own artistic impulses, he frequented the Louvre and was drawn particularly to the work of Nicolas Poussin and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Millet began studying with the noted history painter, Paul Delarouche, an unhappy experience as his teacher dubbed him derisively "the wild man of the woods." When Delarouche refused to support his candidacy for the Prix de Rome, Millet left the artist's studio in defiance and lost his school funding in 1839.

The early 1840s were marked by Millet's occasional artistic success, personal turmoil, and moving back and forth between the rural life of Cherbourg and the artistic world of Paris. After rejecting his first submission in 1839, the Salon accepted one of his portraits the following year. He married Pauline-Virginie Ono in 1841, and the young couple moved to Paris where he hoped to become a successful portraitist. When Ono died in 1844 from tuberculosis and his work was rejected by the Salon, Millet again returned to the family farm.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Jean-François Millet Biography Continues

In 1845 Millet began a relationship with Catherine Lemaire, a young woman who worked as a domestic servant, and their first child, a daughter, was born the following year. Influenced by the revival of interest in Rococo art and hoping for artistic success, he began painting compositions in the Romantic style. The erotic-tinged subject of his new work and his association with Lemaire strained his relationship with his religious family, and he moved with Lemaire to Le Havre and then to Paris in 1849.

In Paris, he became friends with the artists, Théodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, and Charles Jacque, with whom he was to later form the Barbizon School. Millet continued to struggle to form his own artistic style, while still working in established styles. He competed unsuccessfully in a contest to create an allegorical painting for the Republic and showed a historical work, The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, at the 1848 Salon, where the work was negatively received. He also began to suffer bouts of ophthalmic migraine and debilitating rheumatism that would affect him all of his life.

Mature Period

An outbreak of cholera in Paris, combined with the unrest of the February Revolution in 1848, prompted Millet to move Lemaire and their three children to Barbizon, where he joined his artist friends in establishing the Barbizon School. His family settled into a farmhouse that became their permanent residence. In his letters, Millet often wrote of his episodes of ill health and his worries about money, writing at one point, "I really don't know how I'm to fulfill my obligations and go on living." William Morris Hunt, an aspiring artist from a wealthy American family, who hoped to study with Millet, described how, "I found him working in a cellar three feet underground, his canvases covered with mold because of the moisture and because the floor is clay." Millet struggled with poverty all of his life, trying to avoid creditors and bailiffs, worrying about how to obtain the necessities, farming all morning and painting all afternoon so that he felt, as he said, "condemned to hard labor without end."

Friends lent what support they could. Alfred Sensier, a French government official and later Millet's biographer, agreed in 1850 to provide all of Millet's artistic materials in exchange for occasional artworks. Millet's landlord built a small barn-like building on the property to serve as a studio. In the spare setting, Millet kept a collection of rags and clothing that he called "his museum." Keeping their unique colors as suggestions for his paintings, he was particularly fond of blue faded by time to near whiteness.

In 1853 Millet married Catherine Lemaire in a civil ceremony and they eventually had nine children. Millet was to live in Barbizon the rest of his life and his primary friendships were with the artists who also lived there. American architect, Edward Wheelwright, wrote of Millet, "he did not make his society of peasants his neighbors, nor take the peasant...for an ideal of virtue. He had no illusions about the inhabitants of the village...More than once I heard him talk about their defects, their insensitivity to the charms of nature, the narrowness of their feelings, their petty spirit and their low jealousy." Millet was full of contradictions; while he kept a number of farm tools and would demonstrate how to use them to visiting artists, he also impressed them with his erudition, reciting passages from Shakespeare, Dante, La Fontaine, and other classical authors from memory.

He continued painting scenes of rural labor, such as Harvesters Resting in 1852, and The Gleaners, shown in the 1857 Salon where it was heavily criticized for its depiction of poverty. In America, however, his work attracted more favorable attention, as Hunt, who had begun collecting Millet's work, introduced it to the public, and Millet began receiving occasional commissions.

Later Period

After the Salon of 1864, where his Shepherdess Guarding Her Flock was favorably received, he began to experience a measure of success. In 1867 he exhibited nine paintings at the Paris Universal Exposition, and in 1868 Millet was awarded the Legion of Honor. However, disruption again threatened with the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war, and he and his family sought refuge at Cherbourg where he remained until 1871 and where his work began also to focus on landscape.

After a period of declining health due to migraines and sciatica, Millet arranged for the parish priest to marry him and Catherine Lemaire in a religious ceremony in order to ensure her rights of inheritance and enable his family to have a religious funeral for him. He died on January 20, 1875 at home in Barbizon.


Legacy

Millet's self-portrait (c 1845-46)
Millet's self-portrait (c 1845-46)

The influence of Millet's art is wide ranging in both the art and literary worlds. Impressionists, like Georges Seurat, admired his draughtsmanship and his depictions of light. Post-Impressionists, most notably Vincent van Gogh, were influenced by his subject matter, sculptural figures, and expressionistic brushwork. His work had an impact internationally upon Janos Thorma, Max Liebermann, Rosa Bonheur, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and William Morris Hunt, among others. Salvador Dalí's obsession with Millet's The Angelus coincided with his own later religiously themed work.

Millet's work also greatly influenced photography and film. Henri Cartier-Bresson, studying his paintings and drawings intensively, was not only inspired by him but passed that inspiration on to other photographers such as Werner Bischoff, Josef Koudelka, Constantin Manos, and Sebastiao Salgado. In particular Millet's The Gleaners has been a creative impetus to subsequent artists. In 2000 the French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda made the documentary, The Gleaners and I. The painting was also used by the artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook in her 2008 performance video The Two Planet Series and appropriated by Banksy in his 2012 work.

The noted American writer, Mark Twain wrote a farcical play, Is He Dead? in which the protagonist, an impoverished Millet, fakes his own death to achieve fame and thus, raise the value of his paintings releasing him from a life of penury. Edwin Markham, Oregon's first poet laureate achieved fame in 1889 with his poem, "Man With a Hoe," based upon Millet's painting. The famous American poet, Walt Whitman, said of his ground-breaking Leaves of Grass," The Leaves are really only Millet in another form - they are the Millet that Walt Whitman has succeeded into putting into words." The theory of noted critic and author John Berger was influenced by Millet's work, writing that "Millet, without a trace of sentimentality, told the truth as he knew it."

Millet also had an inadvertent impact upon the laws affecting the art world. When The Angelus sold for a half million francs in 1889, fourteen years after Millet's death, awareness of the dismal poverty of his family led to droit de suite laws that allow an artist's heirs to receive part of later resale prices.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Jean-François Millet
Interactive chart with Jean-François Millet's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
View Influences Chart

Artists

Honoré DaumierHonoré Daumier
MichelangeloMichelangelo
Nicolas PoussinNicolas Poussin

Friends

Constant Troyon
Narcisse Diaz
Charles Jacque
Theodore RousseauTheodore Rousseau

Movements

RealismRealism
Barbizon SchoolBarbizon School
Jean-François Millet
Jean-François Millet
Years Worked: 1840 - 1875

Artists

Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh
Georges SeuratGeorges Seurat
Salvador DalíSalvador Dalí
Claude MonetClaude Monet

Friends

William Morris HuntWilliam Morris Hunt
Edward Wheelwright
Charles Jacque
Theodore RousseauTheodore Rousseau

Movements

ImpressionismImpressionism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism
SurrealismSurrealism
Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Useful Resources on Jean-François Millet

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter

By Alfred Sensier

artworks

Drawn into the Light: Jean Francois Millet Recomended resource

By Alexandra R. Murphy, Clark Art Institute, Frick Art and Historical Center

Jean-François Millet: [exhibition], Hayward Gallery

By Robert L Herbert

The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature

By Dita Amory
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 2007

Art Review: Plucking Warmth From Millet's Light

By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
August 1999

Gallery View: Why We Now See Millet Differently

By Michael Brenson
New York Times
June 1984

Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: