Jean-François Millet (October 4, 1814 – January 20, 1875) 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 can be categorized as part of the naturalism and realism movements.
Millet was the first child of Jean-Louis-Nicolas and Aimée-Henriette-Adélaïde Henry Millet, members of the peasant community in the village of Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy). Under the guidance of two village priests, Millet acquired a knowledge of Latin and modern authors, before being sent to Cherbourg in 1833 to study with a portrait painter named Paul Dumouchel. By 1835 he was studying full-time with Lucien-Théophile Langlois, a pupil of Baron Gros, in Cherbourg. A stipend provided by Langlois and others enabled Millet to move to Paris in 1837, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts with Paul Delaroche. In 1839 his scholarship was terminated, and his first submission to the Salon was rejected.
After his first painting, a portrait, was accepted at the Salon of 1840, Millet returned to Cherbourg to begin a career as a portrait painter. However, the following year he married Pauline-Virginie Ono, and they moved to Paris. After rejections at the Salon of 1843 and Pauline's death by consumption, Millet returned again to Cherbourg. In 1845 Millet moved to Le Havre with Catherine Lemaire, whom he would marry in a civil ceremony in 1853; they would have nine children, and remain together for the rest of Millet's life. In Le Havre he painted portraits and small genre pieces for several months, before moving back to Paris.
It was in Paris in the middle 1840s that Millet befriended Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz, Charles Jacque, and Théodore Rousseau, artists who, like Millet, would become associated with the Barbizon school; Honoré Daumier, whose figure draftsmanship would influence Millet's subsequent rendering of peasant subjects; and Alfred Sensier, a government bureaucrat who would become a lifelong supporter and eventually the artist's biographer. In 1847 his first Salon success came with the exhibition of a painting Oedipus Taken down from the Tree, and in 1848 his Winnower was bought by the government.
The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, Millet's most ambitious work at the time, was unveiled at the Salon of 1848, but was scorned by art critics and the public alike. The painting eventually disappeared shortly thereafter, leading historians to believe that Millet destroyed it. In 1984, scientists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston x-rayed Millet's 1870 painting The Young Sherpherdess looking for minor changes, and discovered that it was painted over Captivity. It is now believed that Millet reused the canvas when materials were in short supply during the Franco-Prussian War.
In 1849 Millet painted Harvesters, a commission for the state. In the Salon of that year he exhibited Shepherdess Sitting at the Edge of the Forest, a very small oil which marked a turning away from previous idealized pastoral subjects, in favor of a more realistic and personal approach. In June of that year he settled in Barbizon with Catherine and their children.
In 1850 Millet entered into an arrangement with Sensier, who provided the artist with materials and money in return for drawings and paintings, while Millet simultaneously was free to continue selling work to other buyers as well. At that year's Salon he exhibited Haymakers and The Sower, his first major masterpiece and the earliest of the iconic trio of paintings that would include The Gleaners and The Angelus.
From 1850 to 1853 Millet worked on Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz), a painting he would consider his most important, and on which he worked the longest. Conceived to rival his heroes Michelangelo and Poussin, it was also the painting that marked his transition from the depiction of symbolic imagery of peasant life to that of contemporary social conditions. It was the only painting he ever dated, and was the first work to garner him official recognition, a second-class medal at the 1853 salon.
The Gleaners (1857) is one of the most well known of Millet's paintings. Walking the fields around Barbizon one theme returned to Millet's pencil and brush for seven years—gleaning—the centuries old right of poor women and children to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest. He found the theme an eternal one, linked to stories from the Old Testament. In 1857, he submitted the painting The Gleaners to the Salon to an unenthusiastic, even hostile, public.
(Earlier versions include a vertical composition painted in 1854, an etching of 1855-56 which directly presaged the horizontal format of the painting now in the Musée d'Orsay.)
A warm golden light suggests something sacred and eternal in this daily scene where the struggle to survive takes place. During his years of preparatory studies Millet contemplated how to best convey the sense of repetition and fatigue in the peasants' daily lives. Lines traced over each woman’s back lead to the ground and then back up in a repetitive motion identical to their unending, backbreaking labor. Along the horizon, the setting sun silhouettes the farm with its abundant stacks of grain, in contrast to the large shadowy figures in the foreground. The dark homespun dresses of the gleaners cut robust forms against the golden field, giving each woman a noble, monumental strength.
Millet 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.
Millet's painting L'homme à la houe inspired the famous poem "The Man With the Hoe" (1898) by Edwin Markham.
The Angelus was reproduced frequently in the 19th and 20th centuries. Salvador Dalí was fascinated by this work, and wrote an analysis of it, The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet. Rather than seeing it as a work of spiritual peace, Dalí believed it held messages of repressed sexual aggression. Dalí was also of the opinion that the two figures were praying over their buried child, rather than to the Angelus. Dalí was so insistent on this fact that eventually an X-ray was done of the canvas, confirming his suspicions: the painting contains a painted-over geometric shape strikingly similar to a coffin. However, it is unclear whether Millet changed his mind on the meaning of the painting, or even if the shape actually is a coffin.