Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Francois Millet’


It is the treating of the commonplace with the feelings of the sublime that gives to art its true power.

–Jean-Francois Millet


Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) is mainly known for his peasant scenes painted in the genre of the Barbizon school, of which he was an originator.  This genre marked the move from Romantic painting to Realism which depicted the reality of all aspects of the world, including the rural working class which were seldom portrayed heretofore.

This work played a huge role in the evolution of modern art as a number of artists from subsequent generations ran with this work , adding their own voice and style to the subject matter. Van Gogh, for example, directly copied a number of Millet works, such as The Sower below, in his own distinct style.

I am not moved by all of Millet’s work. Some of it feels generic but I think that is understandable as its style was so influential that it was emulated, creating a vast body of similar work. But there is something in a segment of his work that I feel is truly visionary in a way that lends credence to the statement from Millet at the top of the page. Here are a few of my favorites.

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Theodore Rousseau- Under The Birches  1842

Theodore Rousseau- Under The Birches 1842

It is better in art to be honest than clever.

–Theodore Rousseau


Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was part of the Barbizon school of painters, an art movement in 19th century France that was instrumental in moving away from from formalism and towards naturalism and artistic expression of emotion.  It was very influential on many of the painters who later created the Impressionist movement.

Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet, best known for his peasant scenes, were the two artists from this school whose work really spoke to me, seeming to have honest emotional content in them.  Perhaps that is why his short quote resonated so strongly with me.  That and the fact that I have found myself less impressed with cleverness than honest expression through the years.  I have always believed that art comes from tapping into the subconscious, something other than the part of our brain that produces conscious thought.

I guess I just don’t think we are that smart.  Or clever.

I know I am not.  My work is at its best when it comes from a place of honesty and real emotion, when it is made with more intuition than forethought.  When it is too thought out and directed it begins to feel stilted and contrived, losing its naturalness and rhythm and becoming heavy-handed.

That is probably the reason I tell young or beginning painters to focus not so much on the actual idea of a painting but more on things like paint handling and color quality, those things that make up the surface of a painting and convey the real meaning of the painting. And I think that is what Rousseau was probably getting at in his terse quote.

But maybe not.  Like I said, I am not that clever.

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Millet- The Gust of WindIn reading yesterday’s paper, I came across an article describing an exhibition opening at the Everson Museum in Syracuse called From Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces of the Davies Collection.  It is in Syracuse until the beginning of next year when it moves to the Corcoran in Washington, DC.  The exhibit features works from many of the greats- Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh, to name a few.

The thing that caught my eye though, was this painting by Jean-Francois Millet, The Gust of Wind.  There was a real familiarity in seeing it and I immediately recognized the similarity of this piece with the compositions of a number of my paintings.  The tree blown to one side from the wind.  The way the tree sits at the top of the hillock.  Even the shape of the ground and the way it dominates the picture plane.

Of course, I could do this with many, many paintings by a variety of painters.  It’s a simple composition of a tree on a rise, after all.  But because it was Millet, it struck me because I have always so admired his work and often felt a kinship to it.  As a youth, a piece of his at our local museum, the Arnot, was always a favorite.  His paintings of field workers always drew me in with their sweeping fields and expansive skies.

Millet-  The SowerAnd then there was The Sower.

The Sower was arguably Millet’s most famous image, a simple depiction of a farmer spreading seed.  It has great motion and a  beautiful diagonal line through the sower’s body.  Like the painting above, there has always been a sense of familiarity with this image.  I have memories of a pair of bronze bookends from my childhood, probably from a garage sale and now long lost, that had the image of The Sower on them.  Something in that figure clicked in me even then and I have always responded when seeing it.

This image was further immortalized by Van Gogh in several of his paintings, one a pure copy albeit in his own distinctive style.

Millett After   Van GoghMillett's Sower Van Gogh

Seeing Millet’s figure in Van Gogh’s paintings made a huge impression on me many years ago.  It triggered a chain of creative impulses that I still feel to this day.  Seeing The Gust of Wind in the paper brought them back to the surface for me and I may well be working off this little surge of inspiration for weeks or months to come.

So, if you get a chance check out the exhibit and the Millet…

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