1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Millet, Jean François (1814-1875)
MILLET, JEAN FRANÇOIS (1814–1875), French painter, who came of a peasant family, was born on the 4th of October 1814 in the hamlet of Gruchy, near Greville (La Manche), in the wild and picturesque district called La Hague. His boyhood was passed working in his father's fields, but the sight of the engravings in an old illustrated Bible set him drawing, and thenceforth, whilst the others slept, the daily hour of rest was spent by Millet in trying to render the familiar scenes around him. From the village priest the lad learnt to read the Bible and Virgil in Latin, and acquired an interest in one or two other works of a high class which accompanied him through life; he did not, however, attract attention so much by his acquirements as by the stamp of his mind. The whole family seems, indeed, to have worn a character of austerity and dignity, and when Millet's father finally decided to test the vocation of his son as an artist, it was with a gravity and authority which recalls the patriarchal households of Calvinist France. Two drawings were prepared and placed before a painter at Cherbourg named Mouchel, who at once recognized the boy's gifts, and accepted him as a pupil; but shortly after (1835) Millet's father died, and the eldest son, with heroic devotion, took his place at home, nor did he return to his work until the pressing calls from without were solemnly enforced by the wishes of his own family. He accordingly went back to Cherbourg, but after a short time spent there with another master (Langlois) started with many misgivings for Paris. The council-general of the department had granted him a sum of 600 francs, and the town council promised an annual pension of 400, but in spite of friendly help and introductions Millet went through great difficulties. The system of the École des Beaux Arts was hateful to him, and it was not until after much hesitation that he decided to enter an official studio—that of Delaroche. The master was certainly puzzled by his pupil; he saw his ability, and, when Millet in his poverty could not longer pay the monthly fees, arranged for his free admission to the studio, but he tried in vain to make him take the approved direction, and lessons ended with “Eh, bien, allez à votre guise, vous êtes si nouveau pour moi que je ne veux rien vous dire.” At last, when the competition for the Grand Prix came on, Delaroche gave Millet to understand that he intended to secure the nomination of another, and thereupon Millet withdrew himself, and with his friend Marolle started in a little studio in the Rue de l’Est. He had renounced the beaten track, but he continued to study hard whilst he sought to procure bread by painting portraits at 10 or 15 francs apiece and producing small “pastiches” of Watteau and Boucher. In 1840 Millet went back to Gréville, where he painted “Sailors Mending a Sail” and a few other pictures—reminiscences of Cherbourg life.
His first success was obtained in 1844, when his “Milkwoman” and “Lesson in Riding” (pastel) attracted notice at the Salon, and friendly artists presented themselves at his lodgings only to learn that his wife had just died, and that he himself had disappeared. Millet was at Cherbourg; there he remarried, but having amassed a few hundred francs he went back to Paris and presented his “St Jerome” at the Salon of 1845. This picture was rejected and exists no longer, for Millet, short of canvas, painted over it “Oedipus Unbound,” a work which during the following year was the object of violent criticism. He was, however, no longer alone; Diaz, Eugène Tourneux, Rousseau, and other men of note supported him by their confidence and friendship, and he had by his side the brave Catherine Lemaire, his second wife, a woman who bore poverty with dignity and gave courage to her husband through the cruel trials in which he penetrated by a terrible personal experience the bitter secrets of the very poor. To this date belong Millet’s “Golden Age,” “Bird Nesters” “Young Girl and Lamb,” and “Bathers”; but to the “Bathers” (Louvre) succeeded “The Mother Asking Alms,” “The Workman’s Monday,” and “The Winnower.” This last work, exhibited in 1848, obtained conspicuous success, but did not sell till Ledru Rollin, informed of the painter’s dire distress, gave him 500 francs for it, and accompanied the purchase with a commission, the money for which enabled Millet to leave Paris for Barbizon, a village on the skirts of the forest of Fontainebleau. There he settled in a three-roomed cottage for the rest of his life—twenty-seven years, in which he wrought out the perfect story of that peasant life of which he alone has given a “complete impression.” Jules Breton has coloured the days of toil with sentiment; others, like Courbet, whose eccentric “Funeral at Ornans” attracted more notice at the Salon of 1850 than Millet’s “Sowers and Binders,” have treated similar subjects as a vehicle for protest against social misery; Millet alone, a peasant and a miserable one himself, saw true, neither softening nor exaggerating what he saw. In a curious letter written to M. Sensier at this date (1850) Millet expressed his resolve to break once and for all with mythological and undraped subjects, and the names of the principal works painted subsequently will show how steadfastly this resolution was kept. In 1852 he produced “Girls Sewing,” “Man Spreading Manure”; 1853, “The Reapers”; 1854, “Church at Gréville”; 1855—the year of the International Exhibition, at which he received a medal of second class—“Peasant Grafting a Tree”; 1857, “The Gleaners”; 1859, “The Angelus,” “The Woodcutter and Death”; 1860, “Sheep Shearing”; 1861, “Woman Shearing Sheep,” “Woman Feeding Child”; 1862, “Potato Planters,” “Winter and the Crows”; 1863, “Man with Hoe,” “Woman Carding”; 1864, “Shepherds and Flock, Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields”; 1869, “Knitting Lesson”; 1870, “Buttermaking”; 1871, “November—recollection of Gruchy.” Any one of these works will show how great an influence Millet’s previous practice in the nude had upon his style. The dresses worn by his figures are not clothes, but drapery through which the forms and movements of the body are strongly felt, and their contour shows a grand breadth of line which strikes the eye at once. Something of the imposing unity of his work was also, no doubt, due to an extraordinary power of memory, which enabled Millet to paint (like Horace Vernet) without a model; he could recall with precision the smallest details of attitudes or gestures which he proposed to represent. Thus he could count on presenting free from afterthoughts the vivid impressions which he had first received, and Millet’s nature was such that the impressions which he received were always of a serious and often of a noble order, to which the character of his execution responded so perfectly that even a “Washerwoman at her Tub” will show the grand action of a Medea. The drawing of this subject is reproduced in Souvenirs de Barbizon, a pamphlet in which M. Piédagnel has recorded a visit paid to Millet in 1864. His circumstances were then less evil, after struggles as severe as those endured in Paris. A contract by which he bound himself in 1860 to give up all his work for three years had placed him in possession of 1000 francs a month. His fame extended, and at the exhibition of 1867 he received a medal of the first class, and the ribbon of the Legion of Honour, but he was at the same moment deeply shaken by the death of his faithful friend Rousseau. Though he rallied for a time he never completely recovered his health, and on the 20th of January 1875 he died. He was buried by his friend’s side in the churchyard of Chailly. His pictures, like those of the rest of the Barbizon school, have since greatly increased in value.
See the article Barbizon; also A. Sensier, Vie et œuvre de J. F. Millet (1874); Piédagnel, Souvenirs de Barbizon, &c. (1876); D. C. Thomson, The Barbizon School (1891); Richard Muther, J. F. Millet (1905); Gensel, Millet und Rousseau (1902).