One of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France, Jean-Francois Millet is noted for his rural and peasant scenes that celebrate the working class. Although once criticized for being a socialist or revolutionist, his aim was pure; he wanted to portray the dignity and pride in the life and work of the common man. His influence extended to the works of Van Gogh who like many other artists, connected with his subjects.
Jean-Francois Millet was born October 4, 1814, in the village of Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague in Normandy. He was born into a family of small peasant farmers and spent much of his youth working in the fields, where he found inspiration for many of his future paintings.
At the age of twenty, Millet began his education with Paul Dumouchel and Jérome Langlois in Cherbourg. A scholarship enabled him to study at the Beaux-Arts in Paris under Romantic painter Paul Delaroche. He studied traditional classical and religious painting, but was severely criticized for being unsophisticated. Consequently, the young artist ended his formal study and set out to study the works of Mantegna, da Vinci, Giorgione and Poussin at the Louvre. He made his living during this time by creating and selling portraiture and fashionable eighteenth century pastoral scenes which afforded him a meager existence.
Life began to take a turn for the better when Jean-Francois Millet met Catherine Lemaire. The young couple fell in love and got married in 1842. By this time, he had already exhibited one of his portraits at the Salon (1840), and another two earned him much praise the second time around in 1844.
The influence of Honoré Daumier during the latter part of the decade caused his style to shift from classical and religious subjects to rural and peasant life, themes he could better relate to. In 1848, he exhibited ‘The Winnower’ at the Salon.
Paris was home to the couple until the cholera epidemic in 1849. Jean-Francois Millet moved his family to Barbizon and took residence near Théodore Rousseau. Rousseau introduced the artist to Diaz de la Pena and Charles Daubigny, and together their depictions of peasant life and country scenery established the Barbizon School. They slowly gained recognition and would later become the inspiration to many future impressionists.
One of his most popular paintings of the 19th century, the famous ‘L'Angelus’ (1859), was originally thought to portray a man and woman praying to the bells of Angelus. Salvador Dali, fascinated by this work, believed the two figures to be praying over a buried child. An X-ray of the canvas confirmed his suspicions; the painting contains a painted-over geometric shape strikingly similar to a coffin.
Towards the end of his life, Millet’s pallette got brighter and he loosened up his brushstrokes. His art appealed to artists such as Seurat and van Gogh, who related to his subjects and their social implications. Jean Francois Millet’s humble beginnings remained the driving force that both glorified and celebrated farmers and peasants. The artist once said, “I was born as a peasant and shall die as a peasant.”, and so, in the final years of his life, he continued to produce the rural and peasant scenes he became associated with until his death on January 20, 1875.