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Monday, February 11, 2013

Millet, Jean-Francois


Shepherdess seated in the shade
1872
oil on canvas
65.4 x 54.9 cm (25 3/4 x 21 5/8 in.)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA

"To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, even if you think me a socialist, that the human side of art is what touches me most." (Millet)

Jean-Francois Millet (1814 - 1875), born into a family of peasant near Cherbourg, was a French painter and one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. Millet is noted for his scenes of peasant farmers. He was the first painter to endow rural life with a dignity and monumentality that transcend realism, making the peasant an almost heroic figure. He never painted out-of-doors, and he had only a limited awareness of tonal values. He can be categorized as part of the naturalism and realism movements.

Millet was trained under a local painter at Cherbourg and then in Paris in 1837. His earliest works are pastiches of the pastorals of the 18th century and rather erotic nudes, but he also painted portraits for a time. The influence of Daumier seems to have been decisive. From c. 1850 his choice of subject matter led to accusations of Socialism (e.g. The Sower, Salon of 1850). In 1849 he moved to Barbizon and remained there for the rest of his life, living in the most gruelling poverty, painting scenes of peasants and their labors as well as ordinary landscapes and marines.

 Millet was often accused of socialism because of his chosen subject. Despite mixed reviews of the paintings he exhibited at the Salon in Paris, Millet's reputation and success grew through the 1860s. In 1870 Millet was elected to the Salon jury. His last years were marked by financial success and increased official recognition, but he was unable to fulfill government commissions due to failing health. On January 3, 1875 he married Catherine in a religious ceremony. Millet died on January 20, 1875.

He was an important source of inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, particularly during his early period. Millet and his work are mentioned many times in Vincent's letters to his brother Theo. Millet's late landscapes would serve as influential points of reference to Claude Monet's paintings of the coast of Normandy; his structural and symbolic content influenced Georges Seurat as well. Millet is the main protagonist of Mark Twain's play Is He Dead? (1898), in which he is depicted as a struggling young artist who fakes his death to score fame and fortune. Most of the details about Millet in the play are fictional.
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