Jean-Francois Millet: Seeds of Impressionism

Jean-Francois Millet: Seeds of Impressionism, Museum of Fine Arts/Boston

(Originally published in Art New England, Volume 5 Number 7, June 1984.)

“What I know of happiness is the quiet, the silence, that you can savor so deliciously, either in the forests, or in the fields,” wrote Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875). He spent much of his life in Barbizon, a small town not far from Paris, where he found inspiration in nature and in the daily life of peasants pulling a difficult living out of the land.

Over and again Millet painted the image of a solitary shepherdess, draped in cloth, hunched over, knitting. Alone, watching and working with her hands in silence, she is a symbol of the artist.

“Half-light is necessary in order to sharpen my eyes and clear my thoughts – it has been my best teacher.”

Millet’s most beautiful works take place at twilight. Half-light softens the figures and makes them more abstract. Details are rubbed away in a dark ground saturated with color. Millet always began with drawing, seeking and finding iconic forms charged with a sense of deep sadness and stillness.

Walt Whitman loved Millet and called his own Leaves of Grass “Millet in another form.” Whitman wrote,

“The earth never tires,

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,

Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”

Ordinary life becomes monumental, charged with grace. There is an ecstatic connection to the pulse, the breath of life in The Sower. The sower’s pose is heroic, Michaelangelesque. It captures the feel of movement, the stride, the swing of limbs of the peasant sowing seeds, trailed by birds.  Indoors at night the glow of a flickering candle makes everything vague, soft, and tender. In scenes of women sewing and spinning, a Vermeer-like light gleams on a piece of thread.

Millet’s work is filled with quotations from other art – compositions from Chardin, light from Vermeer, color from Delacroix and Hiroshige, peasant scenes from Breughel and medieval Books of Hours. He found that works of art “help you understand better what you see in Nature.” He saw the art of the past projected onto the world around him.

The nature Millet painted was transformed for him by memory and art. He painted the ripping muscles of men and animals and the heavy, resigned grace of women, always working, under pink skies with a sliver of moon, or in a golden, husky light. He saw a timeless beauty and sadness in life, in evenings dark and filled with color.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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