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Jean François Millet {mee-lay', zhawn frahn-swah'}, b. Oct. 4, 1814, d. Jan. 20, 1875, was a French painter noted for his depictions of peasant life. The son of a farmer in Gréville, Normandy, Millet did not leave home to study painting in Cherbourg until he was 20 years of age. In 1837 he received a scholarship to study in Paris, where he became a pupil in the studio of Paul Delaroche. Fighting against great odds, and suffering a long period of extreme hardship, Millet exhibited at the Salon for the first time in 1840, and married two years later. During this period his main influences were Poussin and Eustache Le Sueur, and the type of work he produced consisted predominantly of mythological subjects or portraiture, at which he was especially adept.

The Gleaners

The Gleaners
by Jean François Millet
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY


In 1848 he exhibited The Winnower (now lost), which was praised by Théophile Gautier and purchased by Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, the Minister of the Interior. In 1849, when a cholera epidemic broke out in Paris, Millet moved to Barbizon -- in the forest of Fontainebleau -- on the advice of the engraver Charles-Emile Jacque (1813-94), taking a house near that of Théodore Rousseau. Devoted to this area as a subject for his work, he was one of those who most clearly helped establish the Barbizon School. His paintings on rural themes attracted growing acclaim: in 1857 he painted The Gleaners, and between 1858-1859 he produced the famous Angélus (now both in the Musée d'Orsay). The latter work was to be sold 40 years later for the sensational price of 553,000 francs.

Though Flemish artists of the 17th century had depicted peasants at work, Millet was the first painter to endow rural life with a dignity and monumentality that transcend realism, making the peasant an almost heroic figure. He became somewhat of a symbol to younger artists, to whom he gave help and encouragement. It was he who, on a visit to Le Havre to paint portraits, encouraged Boudin to become an artist, and his work certainly influenced the young Monet, and even more decidedly Pissarro, who shared similar political inclinations.

Towards the end of his life, Millet started using a lighter palette and freer brushstrokes, perhaps showing some affinity with the Impressionists -- though his technique was never really close to theirs. He never painted out-of-doors, and he had only a limited awareness of tonal values, but his subject matter -- with its social implications -- appealed to artists such as Seurat and van Gogh. Often accused of socialism because of his chosen subject, he was recognized as an important and original artist only after his death. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also possesses a large collection of his paintings and pastels -- a medium in which he excelled.

Editor: Ian C. Mills
Source: The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9.01, ©1997; and WebMuseum by Nicolas Pioch ©1996.
Bibliography: Julia M. Ady, Jean François Millet: His Life and Letters (1896; repr. 1972); M. H. Langlois, The Art and Life of Jean François Millet (1980); Jean F. Millet, Millet: One Hundred Drawings, ed. by R. Bacou, trans. by James Emmons (1975); A. R. Murphy, Jean François Millet (1987).
Images: "The Gleaners" (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY).
Copyrights Notice and Disclaimer: Images of artists' works displayed throughout this site have been obtained from numerous sources, including digital libraries at educational institutions, educational software, and Mark Harden's Artchive. Credit is attributed when known. Some works are considered to be in the public domain, based on current U.S. and international copyright acts. For more information on copyright laws, please refer to the Artists Rights Society and Benedict O'Mahoney's The Copyright Web Site. [See also: Copyrights.]

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[The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.]

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