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  Jean François MilletSaturday, April 13th, 2024  
by Kenyon Cox


Jean François Millet, who lived hard and died poor, is now perhaps the most famous artist of the nineteenth century. His slightest work is fought for by dealers and collectors, and his more important pictures, if they chance to change hands, bring colossal and almost incredible prices. And of all modern reputations his, so far as we can see, seems most likely to be enduring. If any painter of the immediate past is definitively numbered with the great masters, it is he. Yet the popular admiration for his art is based on a I misapprehension almost as profound as that of those contemporaries who decried and opposed him. They thought him violent, rude, ill-educated, a "man of the woods," a revolutionist, almost a communist. We are apt to think of him as a gentle sentimentalist, a soul full of compassion for the hard lot of the poor, a man whose art achieves greatness by sheer feeling rather than by knowledge and intellect. In spite of his own letters, in spite of the testimony of many who knew him well, in spite of more than one piece of illuminating criticism, these two misconceptions endure; and, for the many, Millet is still either the painter of "The Man with the Hoe," a powerful but somewhat exceptional work, or the painter of "L'Angelus," precisely the least characteristic picture he ever produced. There is a legendary Millet, in many ways a very different man from the real one, and, while the facts of his life are well known and undisputed, the interpretation of them is colored by preconceptions and strained to make them fit the legend.

Altogether too much, for instance, has been made of the fact that Millet was born a peasant. He was so, but so were half the artists and poets who come up to Paris and fill the schools and the cafés of the student quarters. To any one who has known these young rapins, and wondered at the grave and distinguished members of the Institute into which many of them have afterward developed, it is evident that this studious youth -who read Virgil in the original and Homer and Shakespeare and Goethe in translations -probably had a much more cultivated mind and a much sounder education than most of his fellow students under Delaroche. Seven years after this Norman farmer's son came to Paris, with a pension of 600 francs voted by the town council of Cherbourg, the son of a Breton sabot-maker followed him there with a precisely similar pension voted by the town council of Roche-sur-Yon; and the pupil of Langlois had had at least equal opportunities with the pupil of Sartoris. Both cases were entirely typical of French methods of encouraging the fine arts, and the peasant origin of Millet is precisely as significant as the peasant origin of Baudry.

Baudry persevered in the course marked out for him and, after failing three times, received the Prix de Rome and became the pensioner of the state. Millet took umbrage at Delaroche's explanation that his support was already pledged to another candidate for the prize, and left the atelier of that master after little more than a year's work. But that he had already acquired most of what was to be learned there is shown, if by nothing else, by the master's promise to push him for the prize the year following. This was in 1838, and for a year or two longer Millet worked in the life classes of Suisse and Boudin without a master. His pension was first cut down and then withdrawn altogether, and he was thrown upon his own resources. His struggles and his poverty during the next few years were those of many a young artist, aggravated, in his case, by two imprudent marriages. But during all the time that he was painting portraits in Cherbourg or little nudes in Paris he was steadily gaining reputation and making friends. If we had not the pictures themselves to show us how able and how well-trained a workman he was, the story told us by Wyatt Eaton, in "Modern French Masters," would convince us. It was in the last year of Millet's life that he told the young American how, in his early days, a dealer would come to him for a picture and, "having nothing painted, he would offer the dealer a book and ask him to wait for a little while that he might add a few touches to the picture." He would then go into his studio and take a fresh canvas, or a panel, and in two hours bring out a little nude figure, which he had painted during that time, and for which he would receive twenty or twenty-five francs. It was the work of this time that Diaz admired for its color and its "immortal flesh painting"; that caused Guichard, a pupil of Ingres, to tell his master that Millet was the finest draughtsman of the new school; that earned for its author the title of "master of the nude."

He did all kinds of work in these days, even painting signs and illustrating sheet music, and it was all capital practice for a young man, but it was not what he wanted to do. A great deal has been made of the story of his overhearing some one speak of him as "a fellow who never paints anything but naked women," and he is represented as undergoing something like a sudden conversion and as resolving to "do no more of the devil's work." As a matter of fact, he had, from the first, wanted to paint "men at work in the fields," with their "fine attitudes," and he only tried his hand at other things because he had his living to earn. Sensier saw what seems to have been the first sketch for "The Sower" as early as 1847, and it existed long before that, while "The Winnower" was exhibited in 1848; and the overheard conversation is said to have taken place in 1849. There was nothing indecent or immoral in Millet's early work, and the best proof that he felt no moral reprobation for the painting of the nude -as what true painter, especially in France, ever did? -is that he returned to it in the height of his power and, in the picture of the little "Goose Girl" (Pl. 1) by the brook side, her slim, young body bared for the bath, produced the loveliest of his works. No, what happened to Millet in 1849 was simply that he resolved to do no more pot-boiling, to consult no one's taste but his own, to paint what he pleased and as he pleased, if he starved for it. He went to Barbizon for a summer's holiday and to escape the cholera. He stayed there because living was cheap and the place was healthful, and because he could find there the models and the subjects on which he built his highly abstract and ideal art.

At Barbizon he neither resumed the costume nor led the life of a peasant. He wore sabots, as hundreds of other artists have done, before and since, when living in the country in France. Sabots are very cheap and very dry and not uncomfortable when you have acquired the knack of wearing them. In other respects he dressed and lived like a small bourgeois, and was monsieur to the people about him. Barbizon was already a summer resort for artists before he came there, and the inn was full of painters; while others, of whom Rousseau was one, were settled there more or less permanently. It is but a short distance from Paris, and the exhibitions and museums were readily accessible. The life that Millet lived there was that of many poor, self-respecting, hard-working artists, and if he had been a landscape painter that life would never have seemed in any way exceptional. It is only because he was a painter of the figure that it seems odd he should have lived in the country; only because he painted peasants that he has been thought of as a peasant himself. If he accepted the name, with a kind of pride, it was in protest against the frivolity and artificiality of the fashionable art of the day. But if too much has been made of Millet's peasant origin, perhaps hardly enough has been made of his race. It is at least interesting that the two Frenchmen whose art has most in common with his, Nicolas Poussin and Pierre Corneille, should have been Normans like himself. In the severely restrained, grandly simple, profoundly classical work of these three men, that hard-headed, strong-handed, austere, and manly race has found its artistic expression.

For Millet is neither a revolutionary nor a sentimentalist, nor even a romanticist; he is essentially a classicist of the classicists, a conservative of the conservatives, the one modern exemplar of the grand style. It is because his art is so old that it was "too new" for even Corot to understand it; because he harked back beyond the pseudoclassicism of his time to the great art of the past, and was classic as Phidias and Giotto and Michelangelo were classic, that he seemed strange to his contemporaries. In everything he was conservative. He hated change; he wanted things to remain as they had always been. He did not especially pity the hard lot of the peasant; he considered it the natural and inevitable lot of man who "eats bread in the sweat of his brow." He wanted the people he painted "to look as if they belonged to their place -as if it would be impossible for them ever to think of being anything else but what they are." In the herdsman and the shepherd, the sower and the reaper, he saw the immemorial types of humanity whose labors have endured since the world began and were essentially what they now are when Virgil wrote his "Georgics" and when Jacob kept the flocks of Laban. This is the note of all his work. It is the permanent, the essential, the eternally significant that he paints. The apparent localization of his subjects in time and place is an illusion. He is not concerned with the nineteenth century or with Barbizon but with mankind. At the very moment when the English Pre-raphaelites were trying to found a great art on the exhaustive imitation of natural detail, he eliminated detail as much as possible. At the very beginning of our modern preoccupation with the direct representation of facts, he abandoned study from the model almost entirely and could say that he "had never painted from nature." His subjects would have struck the amiable Sir Joshua as trivial, yet no one has ever more completely followed that writer's precepts. His confession of faith is in the words, "One must be able to make use of the trivial for the expression of the sublime"; and this painter of "rustic genre" is the world's greatest master of the sublime after Michelangelo.

The comparison with Michelangelo is inevitable and has been made again and again by those who have felt the elemental grandeur of Millet's work. As a recent writer has remarked: "An art highly intellectualized, so as to convey a great idea with the lucidity of language, must needs be controlled by genius akin to that which inspired the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel."[A] This was written of the Trajanic sculptors, whose works both Michelangelo and Millet studied and admired, and indeed it is to this old Roman art, or to the still older art of Greece, that one must go for the truest parallel of Millet's temper and his manner of working. He was less impatient, less romantic and emotional than Michelangelo; he was graver, quieter, more serene; and if he had little of the Greek sensuousness and the Greek love of physical beauty, he had much of the antique clarity and simplicity. To express his idea clearly, logically, and forcibly; to make a work of art that should be "all of a piece" and in which "things should be where they are for a purpose"; to admit nothing for display, for ornament, even for beauty, that did not necessarily and inevitably grow out of his central theme, and to suppress with an iron rigidity everything useless or superfluous -this was his constant and conscious effort. It is an ideal eminently austere and intellectual -an ideal, above all, especially and eternally classic.

Take, for an instance, the earliest of his masterpieces, the first great picture by which he marked his emancipation and his determination henceforth to produce art as he understood it without regard to the preferences of others. Many of his preliminary drawings and studies exist and we can trace, more or less clearly, the process by which the final result was arrived at. At first we have merely a peasant sowing grain; an everyday incident, truly enough observed but nothing more. Gradually the background is cut down, the space restricted, the figure enlarged until it fills its frame as a metope of the Parthenon is filled. The gesture is ever enlarged and given more sweep and majesty, the silhouette is simplified and divested of all accidental or insignificant detail. A thousand previous observations are compared and resumed in one general and comprehensive formula, and the typical has been evolved from the actual. What generations of Greek sculptors did in their slow perfectioning of certain fixed types he has done almost at once. We have no longer a man sowing, but "The Sower" (Pl. 2), justifying the title he instinctively gave it by its air of permanence, of inevitability, of universality. All the significance which there is or ever has been for mankind in that primæval action of sowing the seed is crystallized into its necessary expression. The thing is done once for all, and need never -can never be done again. Has any one else had this power since Michelangelo created his "Adam"?

If even Millet never again attained quite the august impressiveness of this picture it is because no other action of rustic man has so wide or so deep a meaning for us as this of sowing. All the meaning there is in an action he could make us feel with entire certainty, and always he proceeds by this method of elimination, concentration, simplification, insistence on the essential and the essential only. One of the most perfect of all his pictures -more perfect than "The Sower" on account of qualities of mere painting, of color, and of the rendering of landscape, of which I shall speak later -is "The Gleaners" (Pl. 3). Here one figure is not enough to express the continuousness of the movement; the utmost simplification will not make you feel, as powerfully as he wishes you to feel it, the crawling progress, the bending together of back and thighs, the groping of worn fingers in the stubble. The line must be reinforced and reduplicated, and a second figure, almost a facsimile of the first, is added. Even this is not enough. He adds a third figure, not gathering the ear, but about to do so, standing, but stooped forward and bounded by one great, almost uninterrupted curve from the peak of the cap over her eyes to the heel which half slips out of the sabot, and the thing is done. The whole day's work is resumed in that one moment. The task has endured for hours and will endure till sunset, with only an occasional break while the back is half-straightened -there is not time to straighten it wholly. It is the triumph of significant composition, as "The Sower" is the triumph of significant draughtsmanship.

Or, when an action is more complicated and difficult of suggestion, as is that, for instance, of digging, he takes it at the beginning and at the end, as in "The Spaders" (Pl. 4), and makes you understand everything between. One man is doubled over his spade, his whole weight brought to bear on the pressing foot which drives the blade into the ground. The other, with arms outstretched, gives the twisting motion which lets the loosened earth fall where it is to lie. Each of these positions is so thoroughly understood and so definitely expressed that all the other positions of the action are implied in them. You feel the recurrent rhythm of the movement and could almost count the falling of the clods.

So far did Millet push the elimination of non-essentials that his heads have often scarcely any features, his hands, one might say, are without fingers, and his draperies are so simplified as to suggest the witty remark that his peasants are too poor to afford any folds in their garments. The setting of the great, bony planes of jaw and cheek and temple, the bulk and solidity of the skull, and the direction of the face -these were, often enough, all he wanted of a head. Look at the hand of the woman in "The Potato Planters" (Pl. 5), or at those of the man in the same picture, and see how little detail there is in them, yet how surely the master's sovereign draughtsmanship has made you feel their actual structure and function! And how inevitably the garments, with their few and simple folds, mould and accent the figures beneath them, "becoming, as it were, a part of the body and expressing, even more than the nude, the larger and simpler forms of nature"! How explicitly the action of the bodies is registered, how perfectly the amount of effort apparent is proportioned to the end to be attained! One can feel, to an ounce, it seems, the strain upon the muscles implied by that hoe-full of earth. Or look at the easier attitude of "The Grafter" (Pl. 6), engaged upon his gentler task, and at the monumental silhouette of the wife, standing there, babe in arms, a type of eternal motherhood and of the fruitfulness to come.

Oftener than anything, perhaps, it was the sense of weight that interested Millet. It is the adjustment of her body to the weight of the child she carries that gives her statuesque pose to the wife of the grafter. It is the drag of the buckets upon the arms that gives her whole character to the magnificent "Woman Carrying Water," in the Vanderbilt collection. It is the erect carriage, the cautious, rhythmic walk, keeping step together, forced upon them by the sense of weight, which gives that gravity and solemnity to the bearers of "The New-Born Calf" (Pl. 7), which was ridiculed by Millet's critics as more befitting the bearers of the bull Apis or the Holy Sacrament. The artist himself was explicit in this instance as in that of the "Woman Carrying Water." "The expression of two men carrying a load on a litter," he says, "naturally depends on the weight which rests upon their arms. Thus, if the weight is equal, their expression will be the same, whether they bear the Ark of the Covenant or a calf, an ingot of gold or a stone." Find that expression, whether in face or figure, render it clearly, "with largeness and simplicity," and you have a great, a grave, a classic work of art. "We are never so truly Greek," he said, "as when we are simply painting our own impressions." Certainly his own way of painting his impressions was more Greek than anything else in the whole range of modern art.

In the epic grandeur of such pictures as these there is something akin to sadness, though assuredly Millet did not mean them to be sad. Did he not say of the "Woman Carrying Water": "I have avoided, as I always do, with a sort of horror, everything that might verge on the sentimental"? He wished her to seem "to do her work simply and cheerfully ... as a part of her daily task and the habit of her life." And he was not always in the austere and epical mood. He could be idyllic as well, and if he could not see "the joyous side" of life or nature he could feel and make us feel the charm of tranquillity. Indeed, this remark of his about the joyous side of things was made in the dark, early days when life was hardest for him. He broadened in his view as he grew older and conditions became more tolerable, and he has painted a whole series of little pictures of family life and of childhood that, in their smiling seriousness, are endlessly delightful. The same science, the same thoughtfulness, the same concentration and intellectual grasp that defined for us the superb gesture of "The Sower" have gone to the depiction of the adorable uncertainty, between walking and falling, of those "First Steps" (Pl. 8) from the mother's lap to the outstretched arms of the father; and the result, in this case as in the other, is a thing perfectly and permanently expressed. Whatever Millet has done is done. He has "characterized the type," as it was his dream to do, and written "hands off" across his subject for all future adventurers.

Finally, he rises to an almost lyric fervor in that picture of the little "Goose Girl" bathing, which is one of the most purely and exquisitely beautiful things in art. In this smooth, young body quivering with anticipation of the coolness of the water; in these rounded, slender limbs with their long, firm, supple lines; in the unconscious, half-awkward grace of attitude and in the glory of sunlight splashing through the shadow of the willows, there is a whole song of joy and youth and the goodness of the world. The picture exists in a drawing or pastel, which has been photographed by Braun, as well as in the oil-painting, and Millet's habit of returning again and again to a favorite subject renders it difficult to be certain which is the earlier of the two; but I imagine this drawing to be a study for the picture. At first sight the figure in it is more obviously beautiful than in the other version, and it is only after a time that one begins to understand the changes that the artist was impelled to make. It is almost too graceful, too much like an antique nymph. No one could find any fault with it, but by an almost imperceptible stiffening of the line here and there, a little greater turn of the foot upon the ankle and of the hand upon the wrist, the figure in the painting has been given an accent of rusticity that makes it more human, more natural, and more appealing. She is no longer a possible Galatea or Arethusa, she is only a goose girl, and we feel but the more strongly on that account the eternal poem of the healthy human form.

The especial study of the nineteenth century was landscape, and Millet was so far a man of his time that he was a great landscape painter; but his treatment of landscape was unlike any other, and, like his own treatment of the figure, in its insistence on essentials, its elimination of the accidental, its austere and grand simplicity. I have heard, somewhere, a story of his saying, in answer to praise of his work or inquiry as to his meaning: "I was trying to express the difference between the things that lie flat and the things that stand upright." That is the real motive of one of his masterpieces -one that in some moods seems the greatest of them all -"The Shepherdess" (Pl. 9), that is, or used to be, in the Chauchard collection. In this nobly tranquil work, in which there is no hint of sadness or revolt, are to be found all his usual inevitableness of composition and perfection of draughtsmanship -note the effect of repetition in the sheep, "forty feeding like one" -but the glory of the picture is in the infinite recession of the plain that lies flat, the exact notation of the successive positions upon it of the things that stand upright, from the trees and the hay wain in the extreme distance, almost lost in sky, through the sheep and the sheep-dog and the shepherdess herself, knitting so quietly, to the dandelions in the foreground, each with its "aureole" of light. Of these simple, geometrical relations, and of the enveloping light and air by which they are expressed, he has made a hymn of praise.

The background of "The Gleaners," with its baking stubble-field under the midday sun, its grain stacks and laborers and distant farmstead, all tremulous in the reflected waves of heat, indistinct and almost indecipherable yet unmistakable, is nearly as wonderful; and no one has ever so rendered the solemnity and the mystery of night as has he in the marvellous "Sheepfold" of the Walters collection. But the greatest of all his landscapes -one of the greatest landscapes ever painted -is his "Spring" (Pl. 10), of the Louvre, a pure landscape this time, containing no figure. In the intense green of the sunlit woods against the black rain-clouds that are passing away, in the jewel-like brilliancy of the blossoming apple-trees, and the wet grass in that clear air after the shower; in the glorious rainbow drawn in dancing light across the sky, we may see, if anywhere in art, some reflection of the "infinite splendors" which Millet tells us he saw in nature.

In the face of such results as these it seems absurd to discuss the question whether or not Millet was technically a master of his trade, as if the methods that produced them could possibly be anything but good methods for the purpose; but it is still too much the fashion to say and think that the great artist was a poor painter -to speak slightingly of his accomplishment in oil-painting and to seem to prefer his drawings and pastels to his pictures. We have seen that he was a supremely able technician in his pot-boiling days and that the color and handling of his early pictures were greatly admired by so brilliant a virtuoso as Diaz. But this "flowery manner" would not lend itself to the expression of his new aims and he had to invent another. He did so stumblingly at first, and the earliest pictures of his grand style have a certain harshness and ruggedness of surface and heaviness of color which his critics could not forgive any more than the Impressionists, who have outdone that ruggedness, can forgive him his frequent use of a warm general tone inclining to brownness. His ideal of form and of composition he possessed complete from the beginning; his mastery of light and color and the handling of materials was slower of acquirement; but he did acquire it, and in the end he is as absolute a master of painting as of drawing. He did not see nature in blue and violet, as Monet has taught us to see it, and little felicities and facilities of rendering, and anything approaching cleverness or the parade of virtuosity he hated; but he knew just what could be done with thick or thin painting, with opaque or transparent pigment, and he could make his few and simple colors say anything he chose. In his mature work there is a profound knowledge of the means to be employed and a great economy in their use, and there is no approach to indiscriminate or meaningless loading. "Things are where they are for a purpose," and if the surface of a picture is rough in any place it is because just that degree of roughness was necessary to attain the desired effect. He could make mere paint express light as few artists have been able to do -"The Shepherdess" is flooded with it -and he could do this without any sacrifice of the sense of substance in the things on which the light falls. If some of his canvases are brown it is because brown seemed to him the appropriate note to express what he had to say; "The Gleaners" glows with almost the richness of a Giorgione, and other pictures are honey-toned or cool and silvery or splendidly brilliant. And in whatever key he painted, the harmony of his tones and colors is as large, as simple, and as perfect as the harmony of his lines and masses.

In the Chauchard collection, Louvre. But if we cannot admit that Millet's drawings are better than his paintings, we may be very glad he did them. His great epic of the soil must have lacked many episodes, perhaps whole books and cantos, if it had been written only in the slower and more elaborate method. The comparative slightness and rapidity of execution of his drawings and pastels enabled him to register many inventions and observations that we must otherwise have missed, and many of these are of the highest value. His long training in seizing the essential in anything he saw enabled him, often, to put more meaning into a single rapid line than another could put into a day's painful labor, and some of his slightest sketches are astonishingly and commandingly expressive. Other of his drawings were worked out and pondered over almost as lovingly as his completest pictures. But so instinctively and inevitably was he a composer that everything he touched is a complete whole -his merest sketch or his most elaborated design is a unit. He has left no fragments. His paintings, his countless drawings, his few etchings and woodcuts are all of a piece. About everything there is that air of finality which marks the work destined to become permanently a classic.

Here and there, by one or another writer, most or all of what I have been trying to say has been said already. It is the more likely to be true. And if these true things have been said, many other things have been said also which seem to me not so true, or little to the purpose, so that the image I have been trying to create must differ, for better or for worse, from that which another might have made. At least I may have looked at the truth from a slightly different angle and so have shown it in a new perspective. And, at any rate, it is well that true things should be said again from time to time. It can do no harm that one more person should endeavor to give a reason for his admiration of a great and true artist and should express his conviction that among the world's great masters the final place of Jean François Millet is not destined to be the lowest.

[A] Eugénie Strong, "Roman Sculpture," p. 224.

Copyright, 1914, by Charles Scribner's Sons

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