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"Jean-François Millet: Drawings"
1999-10-23 until 1999-01-09
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, , NL Netherlands

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 critics.

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.


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