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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