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"Jean-François Millet: Drawings"
1999-10-23 until 1999-01-09
Van Gogh Museum
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was one of the most respected and
influential artists of the 19th century. He was born at Gruchy, near
Cherbourg, and began his career as a portraitist for the Norman
bourgeoisie. In 1849, following a short stay in Paris and Normandy, he
joined forces with the landscape painters of the Barbizon School. Himself a
great admirer of Eugène Delacroix, he inspired such younger artists as
Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat
and Vincent van Gogh.
Millet was a talented draughtsman. Although he employed an academic
technique, in a certain sense one can say he reinvented it: by depicting
his models in their natural surroundings, by scrupulously reproducing the
effects of light, and by carefully observing how the weather influences the
appearance of the landscape. Both his pastels and drawings are highly
expressive, and are inextricably bound up with his most important paintings.
Despite his fame and reputation, there have been few exhibitions devoted to
Millets works on paper. This show, which includes around 80 important
pieces, will stress his significance as a draughtsman. It will explore his
role in the development of French art from academicism to avant-garde in
the 1860s and 70s. The combination of drawings and paintings will provide
insight into the artists working methods.
Millet executed two types of drawings during his sojourn in Barbizon: on
the one hand, quick sketches made en plein air or in the studio as
preparatory studies for more ambitious works on canvas; on the other,
independent sheets which he sold at low prices to less-wealthy collectors.
He focused his attention on the people he encountered in everyday life: the
wandering shepherd, the woodcutter at his labours, or a poor woman with her
cow. These subjects did not meet with the approval of either the Parisian
art institutions or the political establishment. For centuries, the latter
had viewed the peasant population as lazy, dirty and ignorant.
Despite continual criticism Millet persevered, and in the 1850s even
ventured to render his realistic themes in the aesthetic idiom of the
academy. Masterpieces such as The sower (1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
and Harvesters resting (1853, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), both on view in
the exhibition, were denounced by the critics as radical propaganda.
Particularly striking in Millets work is the isolation of the individual
figures and the emphasis on landscape. An excellent example is the Man with
a hoe (1863, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), based on a drawing of
1860 and showing a tired peasant resting on his digging tool. The dry,
infertile earth in the foreground symbolises the inimicality and
pitilessness of his task and the world in which he lives. Although Millet
has here sought merely to depict the farmers everyday life as
realistically as possible, this painting, too, was misunderstood by the
After 1866 Millet came to concentrate more and more on landscape painting.
Although these later compositions are not entirely devoid of the human
presence, they are more evocations of resigned melancholy and the grandeur
of nature than anything else.
This exhibition has been organised in cooperation with The Sterling and
Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and The Frick Collection and
Historical Center in Pittsburgh.