MILLET, JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1814–1875), French realist painter.
The artistic and political position of Jean-François Millet has never been very stable. Born a landed peasant in Gruchy (Normandy), he spent most of his life from 1849 in the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. After studying art in Cherbourg, Millet moved to Paris in 1837 where he enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts. There, painting conventional biblical and mythological subjects, he refined his skills in figure painting, competed for academic awards, submitted works to annual government-sponsored exhibitions, and sought state commissions. Returning to Normandy in 1840, Millet took up a commercially viable mix of portraiture, mildly erotic themes, and pastorals, while continuing to seek official recognition by sending mythological, biblical, and rustic subjects to the Paris Salons.
With the outbreak of the revolution in Paris in February 1848 and the formation of a provisional republican government, Millet's artistic career took a decided turn. On the strength of substantial critical acclaim for a mythological subject that he exhibited at the 1847 Salon, Millet submitted a religious painting along with a peasant subject (The Winnower, 1847–1848) to the 1848 Salon. By late June 1848, when popular uprisings in support of the left-wing provisional government were harshly suppressed, it was Millet's monumental naturalist depiction of a peasant that was purchased by the interior minister of the new republic and won him an important government commission. Yet, despite The Winnower's massive scale, its generalized pictorial treatment, and the allusion to the revolutionary flag in the figure's color scheme, Millet's intent in representing this solitary peasant was entirely unclear. While the dramatic events of 1848 prompted many artists to take up overtly political subjects, and although Millet counted many republicans among his immediate associates, his own attitude toward the revolution remains uncertain. He
participated briefly in the June riots, but in which faction is unknown. In 1849, Millet fulfilled his state commission with another rustic theme, The Harvesters, and moved with his family to Barbizon, escaping the civil turmoil of Paris. Here, he would concentrate almost all of his public works on contemporary peasant subjects. Rendered in a style of heroic or "epic naturalism," and often incorporating traditional French and Italian artistic conventions, Millet infused his scenes with an elevated content that had traditionally been the reserve of biblical, mythological, and history painting. Critics' interpretations thus easily moved between reading his peasant scenes as signs of social inequities or urban disillusionment to seeing them as symbols that could carry much broader religious and mythological allusions.
During the Second Empire, critical debate focused sharply on the antagonism between an "official" realism that was anchored in conventional and academic aesthetic values, and the new realist school that fiercely challenged them. The increased ideological importance that republican cultural elites placed on boldly unidealized depictions of the peasants and working class pulled the debates over realist subjects and their pictorial treatment in markedly political directions. During the 1850s and 1860s, Millet's paintings met with considerable hostility from conservative opponents of the new realism who perceived in his brutal depictions of rural life the transgression of aesthetic values that sustained an idealized illusion of peasant society as a whole. Interpreted as having distorted the hardships of peasant life and of exaggerating their social and economic conditions, conservatives accused Millet of transforming reality to preach radical political ideals. The force of this antirealist campaign was borne by paintings such as The Gleaners (1857) and Man with a Hoe (1860–1862). The visual immediacy and heroic scale of the Gleaners, whose brutal, swollen features accentuate their weighty poses, in conservatives' eyes patently exaggerated the stark distinction between the poorest strata of peasant society gleaning in the picture's foreground, and the actions of the thriving harvesters in the distance. Attacks such as these garnered Millet unequivocal support among liberal and left-wing critics. Opposed to the Second Empire's political and social initiatives, liberal critics' defense of realist painting assailed the state's aesthetic prerogatives as counterparts to its social contradictions. The debate, then, over Millet's depiction of rural life was part of a much larger struggle to appropriate the peasant into a symbolic vocabulary with broader ideological and political implications.
With the consolidation of the Third Republic in the 1880s, and the ascension of the Empire's republican opposition to positions of institutional power, Millet's reputation again transformed. Posthumous biographies and the retrospective exhibition in 1887 held at the École des Beaux-Arts repositioned Millet's peasant imagery to a central place in a newly defined version of French national art. Cleansed of reminders of radical political associations, Millet's realism was discursively reshaped to embody the essential Frenchness of the nation's artistic heritage.
Clark, T. J. The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851. London, 1973.
Herbert, Robert L. Jean-François-Millet. London, 1976.
——. From Millet to Léger: Essays in Social Art History. New Haven, Conn., 2002.
Parsons, Christopher, and Neil McWilliam. "Le Paysan de Paris: Alfred Sensier and the Myth of Rural France." Oxford Art Journal 6, no. 2 (1983): 38–58
Michael R. Orwicz