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French painter ; b. at Gruchy, near Cherbourg, 4 October, 1814; d. at Barbizon, 20 January, 1875. This great painter of peasants was a son of peasants: he himself began life as a tiller of the soil, and he never lost touch with it. But though a family of rustics, the Millets were far removed from rusticity of manners: they were serious folks, profoundly pious, a strange stock of Catholic Puritans whose stern sentiments of religion, handed down from generation to generation, gave them something like an aristocratic character ; they were incapable of mean ideas. The grandmother — the soul of that household — was an assiduous reader of Pascal, Bossuet, Nicole, and Charron. Young Jean-François was reared by the parish priest in the cult of Vergil and the Bible ; the "Georgics" and the Psalms, which he read in Latin, were his favourites. Later on he became acquainted with Burns and Theocritus, whom he preferred even to Vergil. His imagination never lost these majestic impressions. Nature and poetry, the open country and Holy Scripture , shared equally in the shaping of his genius. Of that genius the young ploughman gave the first signs at the age of eighteen. He studied at Cherbourg under Langlois, a pupil of Baron Gros, and the Municipal Council gave him a pension of 600 francs to go and finish his studies in Paris. There he entered the atelier of Delaroche in 1837; but he spent most of his time in the Louvre, with the masters of bygone ages.
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The primitives of Italy enraptured him by their fervour: Fra Angelico filled him with visions. The colourists were little to his taste; he remained unmoved in the presence of Velazquez. But then again, he liked Ribera's vigour and Murillo's homespun grace. Among the Frenchmen, the beauty of Le Sueur's sentiment touched him, Le Brun and Jouvenet he thought "strong men". But his favourite masters were the masters of "style" — Mantegna, Michelangelo, and Poussin : they haunted him all his life. Poussin's "Letters" were his everyday food, and "I could look at Poussin's pictures forever and ever", he writes, "and always learn something". His contemporaries, Delacroix excepted, moved him but little and for the most part to indignation. Millet's early works — those of his Paris period (1837-50) — are extremely different from those which made him famous. They are now very rare, but ought not to be forgotten: from the point of view of art, they are probably his most pleasing and felicitous productions; in them the painter's temperament voices itself most naturally before his "conversion", without method, without ulterior purpose. They are generally idylls — eclogues — thoroughly rural in feeling, with a frank, noble sensuality, the artist's Vergilian inspiration finding expression in little pagan scenes, antique bas-reliefs, and neutral subjects, such as "Women bathing", "Nymphs", "Offerings to Pan", and so on — thoughts but slightly defined in forms as definite as sculpture.
Some of these pieces are the most Poussinesque things in modern art. In them the young painter already appears as an accomplished stylist, with a Correggian feeling for grace that was to be almost entirely lacking in his latest works. Here he has powerfully expressed the joy of living as it might be known to a soul like his — serious and robust, and always veiled in melancholy. His palette is brighter and less embarrassed than it afterwards became; indeed, the colour is sometimes even a little florid, as in the graceful portrait of Mlle Feuardent. On the other hand, the severity of the modelling always saves his work from anything like carelessness or lack of dignity. Some — like the charming pastel of "Daphnis and Chloe" in the Boston Museum — are frankly reminiscent of Puvis de Chavannes. But the beauty of these pastorals had not been very well appreciated. To make a living, Millet was obliged to undertake base and ill-paid work, painting signs for mountebanks and midwives. His "Oedipus taken down from the tree", a study of the nude which excels as a piece of virtuosity and an impression of savage wildness, rather shocked and astonished the public than won admiration.
His difficulties increased more and more: having lost his first wife, he married again in 1845, and with children came want. Matters were precipitated by the Revolution of 1848. At first the Republican Government took an interest in the artist, and he received some help from it; but the events of the month of June and the disorders of the following year frightened Millet and inspired him with an unconquerable dislike of Paris. He was beginning at last to understand his own nature ; he turned his back forever on the frivolous, worldly public. Without disowning his earlier works, he addressed himself to another, newer and more human, method of interpreting the things of the earth and the life of the rustic. In the summer of 1849 he went to Barbizon, a little village about one league from Chailly, on the borders of the Forest of Fontainebleau. He only meant to spend a few weeks there; but remained for the rest of his life — twenty-seven years. From that time Millet was Millet, the painter of peasants. It is impossible to recount in detail all his life during the ten or fifteen years following his exodus into the country, until his final triumph — to trace the long course of effort and of heroic sacrifice, through which the name of a little obscure hamlet of the Ile-de-France by the tenacity of a small group of painters was made one of the most famous names in the art of all ages.
It was at Barbizon that Millet found Rousseau, who had been settled there for some fifteen years, and with whom he became united in a truly memorable friendship. Other painters — Aligny and Diaz — also frequented the village and the now historic auberge of Père Gaune. The little band of pariahs lived in this wilderness like anchorites of nature and art. Nothing could be more original than this modern Thebaïd, so curiously analogous to the Port-Royal colony of solitaries or the English Lake School. As a matter of fact, Englishmen and Americans — a William Hunt or a Richard Hearn, a Babcock or a Wheelwright — had the honour of being the first to comprehend this new art and to form an admiring circle of neophytes and disciples about its misunderstood exponents. Nevertheless, these were years of fierce struggle for the unfortunate painter. Millet, with his large family (he had four sons and five daughters), knew what it was to want for bread, for firewood, for the most indispensable necessities of life. The baker cut off his credit, the tailor sent him summonses. The poor artist lived in agonies of hunger, tormented by bailiffs, by distraint warrants, and by humiliation. It is impossible to read the story of his sufferings without shedding tears.
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And yet it was just then that Millet, disgraced and baffled, shut out of the Salon, unable to sell his pictures, was at the height of his genius. From these ten or twelve years date the following immortal works: "The Sower" and "Haymakers" (1850); "Harvesters", "Sheep-shearers" (1853); "Peasant grafting a tree" (1855); "Gleaners" (1857); "The Angelus" (1859). To be sure, these admirable achievements did not always meet with disparagement: Victor Hugo had written in one of his famous poems: "Le geste auguste du semeur" (The sower's noble attitude). The leading critics, Théophile Gautier and Paul de Saint-Victor, agreed in recognizing the epic power of these peasant paintings. But the public still resisted: repelled by the abrupt presentment, the rugged execution, the fierce poesy, they insisted on seeing in these works pleas for democracy, socialistic manifestos, and appeals to the mob. In vain did the painter protest: whether he liked it or not, many made of him a revolutionary, a demagogue, a tribune of the people. In the France of that day no one was able to understand what depth of religion was here — to recognize in this sombre and pessimistic art the only Christian art of our time. The only peasants then known to painting were comic-opera peasants — the rude buffoons of Ostade and Teniers, or the beribboned ninnies of Watteau and Greuze. They were always travestied in the interests of romance or of caricature, burlesque or preciosity. No one had ever ventured to show them in the true character of their occupations — the rough beauty of the labour from which they derive their dignity.
The whole of Millet's work is but a paraphrase or an illustration of the Divine Sentence : "In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread". "Every man ", he writes, "is doomed to bodily pain". And again, "It is not always the joyous side that shows itself to me. The greatest happiness I know is calm and silence ". But at the same time, this harsh law of labour, because it is God's law, is the condition of our nobility and our dignity. Millet is quite the opposite of a Utopian or an insurgent. To him the chimeras of Socialism and the wholesale regulation of the good things of life are impious, childish, and disgraceful. "I have no wish to suppress sorrow", he proudly exclaims: "it is sorrow that gives most strength to an artist's utterance". In his subsequent work, moreover, as if challenging the world, he accentuated still further the ruggedness of his painting and the harshness of his sentiment. The year 1863 marks the lowest point of this depressed and misanthropic mood. Nothing ever exceeded his "Winter" in desolateness, or his "Man with the Hoe" and "Vine-dresser resting" in sense of utter exhaustion. The impression of physical fatigue reaches the point of stupefaction and insensibility. The figures seem so thoroughly emptied of their vital energy as to be petrified. The hard look is congealed into a grimace. Nowhere has his effort, the forcing of his individual style to its utmost limit, brought the great artist to results more harsh, more grandiose, or more barbarous.
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But things were getting quieter and easier for him. His extraordinary personality, his eloquence, the strong conviction of this "Danubian peasant", were all making themselves felt. The world was beginning to appreciate the loftiness of view and the moral grandeur of this man of the fields with the lion's mane and the head of a "Jupiter in wooden shoes". A relaxation came over his spirit and his ideas. He travelled, rested, revisited his own part of the country, made short trips to Auvergne, to Alsace, and to Switzerland. In 1868 he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour — at fifty years of age. In 1870 he was elected a member of the jury. But the great war, the death of his sister and of his dear friend Rousseau, finally wrecked a constitution already injured by hard work and privation. During the German invasion he and his family took refuge at Cherbourg near his native home. After that time he almost ceased to paint. His latest pictures, the tragic "November" (1870), the "Church of Gréville" (1872), and the incomparable "Spring" (1873), are mere landscapes, with the human figure entirely absent. Thenceforward he preferred simpler, more direct processes to that of painting, using the pencil or pastel — like the great idealists, who always ended by simplifying or minimizing the material medium and contenting themselves with etching, as did Rembrandt, with drawing, as Michelangelo, or with the piano, as Beethoven. These last works of Millet's are among his finest and most precious. His colouring, formerly heavy and sad, often rusty and unpleasing, or sticky and muddy, is here more delicate than ever before. Nowhere does one feel the touching beauty of this artistic soul, and its masculine but tender eloquence, more perfectly than in his studies and sketches. The finest collections of them are in the possession of M. A. Rouart, in Paris, and of Mr. Shaw, in Boston. Millet passed away at the age of sixty years and four months.
He was one of the noblest figures in contemporary art, one of those men who in our day have done most credit to mankind. As a painter he was not without his faults — somewhat clumsy in technique, not pleasing in colour, while emotion, with him, does not always keep clear of declamation. These faults are most palpable in his most famous works, such as "The Sower" and "The Angelus". But on the other hand, so many others are perfect gems — marvels of execution and poetic sentiment, like "The Morsel in the Beak" (La Becquée), "Maternal solicitude", and "The Sheep-fold". Other painters have had more influence than Millet. Courbet, for example, surpassed him in scope and in prodigious sense of life; Corot, with just as much poetry, has in a higher degree the grace, the charm, the exquisite gift of harmony. But who shall say that Millet's rugged gravity was not the condition, the outward sign, of the deep import of his message? No one has done more than he to make us feel the sanctity of life and the mystic grandeur of man's mission upon the earth. His peasants, rooted to the soil and as if fixed there for eternity, seem to be performing the rites of a sacred mystery. One is conscious of something permanent in them, one feels how intimately they are united with the great whole, their fraternal solidarity with the rest of mankind and with the cosmic ends. Though he never handled professedly religious subjects, Millet succeeded in being the most religious painter of our times. His "Return to the Farm" irresistibly suggests the Flight into Egypt ; his "Repast" of harvesters, or of gleaners, evokes the Biblical poetry of Ruth and Booz. On the river where his "Washerwomen" come and beat their linen, one would think the cradle of Moses was floating. The greatness of his soul has set in relief before our eyes the dignity of our nature ; he has shown us how the trivial can be made to serve in the expression of the sublime, and how the Infinite and the Divine can be discerned in the humblest existence.