Millet is a realist and naturalist French painter, who is one of the founders of the Barbizon school. He was born as a first child of peasant parents, who lived in the village of Gruchy, in Greville-Hague (Normandy) in 1814. His overall style of paintings was to portray everyday peasant life in an idyllic way to dignify the working classes, and criticize the bourgeoisie.
I first came across with Millet during my middle school. I was learning representative artworks in a chronological order in my art class, and Millet’s work The Angelus was one of them. I liked that unlike other Barbizon painters, he focused on depicting peasant life rather than landscape of the rural areas. By including people in the paintings, I could sense the overall peaceful mood of the paintings and emphasize with them better. For some of his drawings, I almost felt like I was part of the drawing observing the view.
The Angelus, 1859
The Angelus, which shows two peasants on a respite reciting the Angelus, is one painting that reflects Millet's childhood. Raised on a farm in a peasant community, Millet was familiar with the rural life. In a letter to his friend, Simeon Luce, dated March 16th, 1865, he wrote: "the idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed very religiously and with cap in hand." It is interesting and even sobering to read that this painting, initially sold by Millet for 1,000 franks, later was ceded to the American Art Association for 580,650 franks.
Man with a Hoe, 1862
As he concentrated his drawing depicting working classes, some of his paintings caused a storm of controversy the Parisian bourgeoisie. Although Miller publicized that he was not a socialist, Man with a Hoe was one of his work that was interpreted as a socialist protest.
Until the last decade of his life, pure landscape was not of great importance to Millet. However, as he turns to naturalism, his first major landscape paintings begin about 1862. Even after he left his hometown Normandy when he was 19, he did not stop to draw Normandy and paint from memory. His nostalgia brought him back to his homeland again in 1870 and 1871, and he spend most of his last three years of life depicting the images of Normandy.
L’eglise de Greville (1871) is a drawing of the prominent church located on the highest land near Gruchy. It was also a church of Millet’s parents, which left memorable impression on Millet during his childhood. Thus, rather than accurately or most precisely imitating the view, many people believe that his personal impression largely affected his drawing. A British painter, Henry Wallis said that “there is an impression of this scene as it struck my imagination when a child which I have no succeeded in rendering, but which I hope to get some day”. This view explains inproportional height of a peasant standing next to the church, and the placement of the sun right behind the church tower. Both components make the tiny building seem much larger than what it actually is, and shares some qualities with early impressionism.
Herbert, Robert L., Michel Laclotte, Roseline Bacou, and Jean François Millet. Jean-Francois Millet: [exhibition], Hayward Gallery, 22 January-7 March 1976. London: Council, 1976. Print.