Jean-François Millet (1814-75)
The son of a small peasant farmer of Gréville in Normandy,
Millet showed a precocious interest in drawing, and arrived
in Paris in 1838 to become a pupil of Paul Delaroche.
He had to fight against great odds, living for long a life
of extreme penury. He exhibited at the Salon for the first
time in 1840, and married two years later. At this time,
the main influences on him were Poussin and Eustache Le Sueur,
and the type of work he produced consisted predominantly of
mythological subjects or portraiture, at which he was especially
adept (Portrait of a Naval Officer, 1845; Musée des
His memories of rural life, and his intermittent contacts with
Normandy, however, impelled him to that concern with peasant life
that was to be characteristic of the rest of his artistic career.
In 1848 he exhibited The Winnower (now lost) at the Salon,
and this was praised by Théophile Gautier and bought by
Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, the Minister of the Interior.
In 1849, when a cholera epidemic broke out in Paris, Millet moved
to Barbizon on the advice of the engraver Charles-Emile Jacque
(1813-94) and took a house near that of Théodore Rousseau.
Devoted to this area as a subject for his work, he was one of
those who most clearly helped to create the Barbizon School.
His paintings on rural themes attracted growing acclaim and between
1858 and 1859 he painted the famous
Angélus (Musée d'Orsay), which 40 years later
was to be sold for the sensational price of 553,000 francs.
Although he was officially distrusted because of his real or
imaginary Socialist leanings, his own attitude towards his chosen
theme of peasant life was curiously ambivalent. Being of peasant
stock, he tended to look upon farmworkers as narrow-minded and
oblivious of beauty, and did not accept the notion that
honest toil was the secret of happiness. In fact,
his success partly stemmed from the fact that, though
compared with most of his predecessors and, indeed, his
contemporaries, he was a
he presented this reality in an acceptable form, with a religious
or idyllic gloss. Nevertheless, he became a symbol to younger
artists, to whom he gave help and encouragement.
It was he who, on a visit to Le Havre to paint portraits,
to become an artist, and his work certainly influenced the young
and even more decidedly so
who shared similar political inclinations.
Although towards the end of his life, when he started using a lighter
palette and freer brushstrokes, his work showed some affinities
his technique was never really close to theirs.
He never painted out-of-doors, and he had only a limited awareness
of tonal values, but his draughtsmanship had a monumentality
that appealed to artists such as
who was also enthralled by his subject-matter, with its social
implications. Millet's career was greatly helped by Durand-Ruel.