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Jean Francois Millet: 1814 - 1875

Jean Francois Millet, the second of eight children, spent his youth in a village near Greville in Normandy. His father was a farm laborer and led the music in the parish church, so that a sense of the interaction of religion and life was instilled into the young Jean Francois. He never lost his devoutness, nor his desire to interpret the Bible in terms of the life of the French laborer, much as Rembrandt had done with the life of the Dutch townspeople around him.

Millet worked for some time in the fields with his father. But his talent for drawing revealed itself, and at the age of 18 he began his studies under a minor painter in Cherbourg. Five years later he went to Paris, to a studio of a Romantic painter, Paul Delaroche. But he learned far more from the works of the Venetians and Michelangelo and Nicolas Poussin. He did not enjoy Paris. Apparently he kept to himself, avoiding his fellow students, who included Thomas Couture, the future teacher of Edouard Manet. Millet was always short of money, and in order to maintain himself produced small, sensuous oils or pastels in the style of Fragonard, Boucher, or Antoine Watteau, which he could sell to dealers for a few francs.

Millet returned to Cherbourg and Le Havre for a period, and then lived in Paris until it was struck by cholera in 1849. He moved to Barbizon on the edge of the Forest of Fontainbleau. There he stayed for the rest of his life, leading a quiet existence with his wife and children. At Barbizon he met the painters Theodore Rousseau and, at Rousseau's house, Diaz de la Pena. These three, with Charles Daubigny, united in their aim to concentrate on painting peasant life and country scenery, became known as the Barbizon School. Other visitors to Rousseau's house were the sculptor Antoine Louis Barye and the satirical painter and lithographer Honore Daumier.


Self-portrait, Cherbourg, Museum des Beaux-Arts


In 1850, Millet submitted The Sower and The Binders to the Salon, where they caused a small stir. The solidity and simplicity of The Sower were indeed remarkable, and in the contemporary context of academic art particularly striking. Although this painting was drawn mainly from memories of Normandy, its transcription of nature was accurate, direct, and powerful. In fact, the usual Barbizon practice of making studies on the spot helped to create and inspire the realism that culminated in Impressionism. Millet himself influenced many artists, most notably Vincent van Gogh, a passionate admirer and imitator, Georges Seurat, and Camille Pissarro.

From this time Millet was able to exhibit at the Salon. In 1885 The Grafter won the praise and enthusiasm of the writer Theophile Gautier. Many outstanding paintings followed, including The Angelus, in 1859, and The Man with a Hoe, 1863. There were also numerous strong, sensitive charcoal drawings and a few experimental etchings. In 1860 Millet found a dealer to take his work in exchange for an agreed monthly sum, so that he was no longer in total poverty. Only his bad health prevented him from carrying out a state commission for eight paintings to decorate the Pantheon in Paris. He died in Barbizon in January, 1875.

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