Biography of Jean Francois Millet

Jean Francois Millet, Painter.

There is no part of France so singularly like England, both in the aspect of the country itself and in the features and character of the inhabitants, as Normandy. The wooded hills and dales, the frequent copses and apple orchards, the numerous thriving towns and villages, the towers and steeples half hidden among the trees, recall at every step the very similar scenery of our own beautiful and fruitful Devonshire. And as the land is, so are the people. Ages ago, about the same time that the Anglo-Saxon invaders first settled down in England, a band of similar English pirates, from the old common English home by the cranberry marshes of the Baltic, drove their long ships upon the long rocky peninsula of the Cotentin, which juts out, like a French Cornwall, from the mainland of Normandy up to the steep cliffs and beetling crags of busy Cherbourg. There they built themselves little hamlets and villages of true English type, whose very names to this day remind one of their ancient Saxon origin. Later on, the Danes or Northmen conquered the country, which they called after their own name, Normandy, that is to say, the Northmen’s land.

Mixing with the early Saxon or English settlers, and with the still more primitive Celtic inhabitants, the Northmen founded a race extremely like that which now inhabits our own country. To this day, the Norman peasants of the Cotentin retain many marks of their origin and their half-forgotten kinship with the English race. While other Frenchmen are generally dark and thick-set, the Norman is, as a rule, a tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed man, not unlike in build to our Yarmouth fisherman, or our Kentish labourers. In body and mind, there is something about him even now which makes him seem more nearly akin to us than the true Frenchmen who inhabit almost all the rest of France.

In the village of Gruchy, near Greville, in this wild and beautiful region of the Cotentin, there lived at the beginning of the present century a sturdy peasant family of the name of Millet. The father of the family was one of the petty village landholders so common in France; a labourer who owned and tilled his own tiny patch of farm, with the aid of his wife and children. We have now no class in England exactly answering to the French peasant proprietors, who form so large and important an element in the population just across the Channel. The small landholder in France belongs by position to about the same level as our own agricultural labourer, and in many ways is content with a style of dress and a mode of living against which English labourers would certainly protest with horror. And yet, he is a proprietor, with a proprietor’s sense of the dignity of his position, and an ardent love of his own little much-subdivided corner of agricultural land. On this he spends all his energies, and however many children he may have, he will try to make a livelihood for all by their united labour out of the soil, rather than let one of them go to seek his fortune by any other means in the great cities. Thus the ground is often tilled up to an almost ridiculous extent, the entire labour of the family being sometimes expended in cultivating, manuring, weeding, and tending a patch of land perhaps hardly an acre in size. It is quite touching to see the care and solicitude with which these toilsome peasants will laboriously lay out their bit of garden with fruits or vegetables, making every line almost mathematically regular, planting every pea at a measured distance, or putting a smooth flat pebble under every strawberry on the evenly ridged-up vines. It is only in the very last resort that the peasant proprietor will consent to let one of his daughters go out to service, or send one of his sons adrift to seek his fortune as an artisan in the big, unknown, outer world.

Millet the elder, however, had nine children, which is an unusually large number for a French peasant family (where the women ordinarily marry late in life); and his little son Jean Francois (the second child and eldest boy), though set to weed and hoe upon the wee farm in his boyhood, was destined by his father for some other life than that of a tiller of the soil. He was born in the year before Waterloo–1814–and was brought up on his father’s plot of land, in the hard rough way to which peasant children in France are always accustomed. Bronzed by sun and rain, poorly clad, and ill-fed, he acquired as a lad, from the open air and the toilsome life he led, a vigour of constitution which enabled him to bear up against the numerous hardships and struggles of his later days. “A Norman Peasant,” he loved to call himself always, with a certain proud humility; and happily he had the rude health of one all his life long.

Hard as he worked, little Francois’ time was not entirely taken up with attending to the fields or garden. He was a studious boy, and learned not only to read and write in French, but also to try some higher flights, rare indeed for a lad of his position. His family possessed remarkable qualities as French peasants go; and one of his great-uncles, a man of admirable strength of character, a priest in the days of the great Revolution, had braved the godless republicans of his time, and though deprived of his cure, and compelled to labour for his livelihood in the fields, had yet guided the plough in his priestly garments. His grandmother first taught him his letters; and when she had instructed him to the length of reading any French book that was put before him, the village priest took him in hand. In France, the priest comes often from the peasant class, and remains in social position a member of that class as long as he lives. But he always possesses a fair knowledge of Latin, the language in which all his religious services are conducted; and this knowledge serves as a key to much that his unlearned parishioners could never dream of knowing. Young Millet’s parish priest taught him as much Latin as he knew himself; and so the boy was not only able to read the Bible in the Latin or Vulgate translation, but also to make acquaintance with the works of Virgil and several others of the great Roman poets. He read, too, the beautiful “Confessions” of St. Augustine, and the “Lives of the Saints,” which he found in his father’s scanty library, as well as the works of the great French preachers, Bossuet and Fenelon. Such early acquaintance with these and many other masterpieces of higher literature, we may be sure, helped greatly to mould the lad’s mind into that grand and sober shape which it finally acquired.

Jean Francois’ love of art was first aroused by the pictures in an old illustrated Bible which belonged to his father, and which he was permitted to look at on Sundays and festivals. The child admired these pictures immensely, and asked leave to be permitted to copy them. The only time he could find for the purpose, however, was that of the mid-day rest or siesta. It is the custom in France, as in Southern Europe generally, for labourers to cease from work for an hour or so in the middle of the day; and during this “tired man’s holiday,” young Millet, instead of resting, used to take out his pencil and paper, and try his hand at reproducing the pictures in the big Bible. His father was not without an undeveloped taste for art: “See,” he would say, looking into some beautiful combe or glen on the hillside–“see that little cottage half buried in the trees; how beautiful it is! I think it ought to be drawn so–;” and then he would make a rough sketch of it on some scrap of paper. At times he would model things with a bit of clay, or cut the outline of a flower or an animal with his knife on a flat piece of wood. This unexercised talent Francois inherited in a still greater degree. As time went on, he progressed to making little drawings on his own account; and we may be sure the priest and all the good wives of Gruchy had quite settled in their own minds before long that Jean Francois Millet’s hands would be able in time to paint quite a beautiful altar-piece for the village church.

By-and-by, when the time came for Francois to choose a trade, he being then a big lad of about nineteen, it was suggested to his father that young Millet might really make a regular painter–that is to say, an artist. In France, the general tastes of the people are far more artistic than with us; and the number of painters who find work for their brushes in Paris is something immensely greater than the number in our own smoky, money-making London. So there was nothing very remarkable, from a French point of view, in the idea of the young peasant turning for a livelihood to the profession of an artist. But Millet’s father was a sober and austere man, a person of great dignity and solemnity, who decided to put his son’s powers to the test in a very regular and critical fashion. He had often watched Francois drawing, and he thought well of the boy’s work. If he had a real talent for painting, a painter he should be; if not, he must take to some other craft, where he would have the chance of making himself a decent livelihood. So he told Francois to prepare a couple of drawings, which he would submit to the judgment of M. Mouchel, a local painter at Cherbourg, the nearest large town, and capital of the department. Francois duly prepared the drawings, and Millet the elder went with his son to submit them in proper form for M. Mouchel’s opinion. Happily, M. Mouchel had judgment enough to see at a glance that the drawings possessed remarkable merit. “You must be playing me a trick,” he said; “that lad could never have made these drawings.” “I saw him do them with my own eyes,” answered the father warmly. “Then,” said Mouchel, “all I can say is this: he has in him the making of a great painter.” He accepted Millet as his pupil; and the young man set off for Cherbourg accordingly, to study with care and diligence under his new master.

Cherbourg, though not yet at that time a great naval port, as it afterwards became, was a busy harbour and fishing town, where the young artist saw a great deal of a kind of life with which he possessed an immense sympathy. The hard work of the fishermen putting out to sea on stormy evenings, or toiling with their nets ashore after a sleepless night, made a living picture which stamped itself deeply on his receptive mind. A man of the people himself, born to toil and inured to it from babyhood, this constant scene of toiling and struggling humanity touched the deepest chord in his whole nature, so that some of the most beautiful and noble of his early pictures are really reminiscences of his first student days at Cherbourg. But after he had spent a year in Mouchel’s studio, sad news came to him from Gruchy. His father was dying, and Francois was only just in time to see him before he passed away. If the family was to be kept together at all, Francois must return from his easel and palette, and take once more to guiding the plough. With that earnest resolution which never forsook him, Millet decided to accept the inevitable. He went back home once more, and gave up his longings for art in order to till the ground for his fatherless sisters.

Luckily, however, his friends at Gruchy succeeded after awhile in sending him back again to Cherbourg, where he began to study under another master, Langlois, and to have hopes once more for his artistic future, now that he was free at last to pursue it in his own way. At this time, he read a great deal–Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, Goethe’s “Faust,” Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand; in fact, all the great works he could lay his hands upon. Peasant as he was, he gave himself, half unconsciously, a noble education. Very soon, it became apparent that the Cherbourg masters could do nothing more for him, and that, if he really wished to perfect himself in art, he must go to Paris. In France, the national interest felt in painting is far greater and more general than in England. Nothing is commoner than for towns or departments to grant pensions (or as we should call them, scholarships) to promising lads who wish to study art in Paris. Young Millet had attracted so much attention at Cherbourg, that the Council General of the Department of the Manche voted him a present of six hundred francs (about L24) to start him on the way; and the town of Cherbourg promised him an annual grant of four hundred francs more (about L16). So up to Paris Millet went, and there was duly enrolled as a student at the Government “School of Fine Arts.”

Those student days in Paris were days of hunger and cold, very often, which Millet bore with the steady endurance of a Norman peasant boy. But they were also days of something worse to him–of effort misdirected, and of constant struggling against a system for which he was not fitted. In fact, Millet was an original genius, whereas the teachers at the School of Fine Arts were careful and methodical rule-of-thumb martinets. They wished to train Millet into the ordinary pattern, which he could not follow; and in the end, he left the school, and attached himself to the studio of Paul Delaroche, then the greatest painter of historical pictures in all Paris. But even Delaroche, though an artist of deep feeling and power, did not fully understand his young Norman pupil. He himself used to paint historical pictures in the grand style, full of richness and beauty; but his subjects were almost always chosen from the lives of kings or queens, and treated with corresponding calmness and dignity. “The Young Princes in the Tower,” “The Execution of Marie Antoinette,” “The Death of Queen Elizabeth,” “Cromwell viewing the Body of Charles I.”–these were the kind of pictures on which Delaroche loved to employ himself. Millet, on the other hand, though also full of dignity and pathos, together with an earnestness far surpassing Delaroche’s, did not care for these lofty subjects. It was the dignity and pathos of labour that moved him most; the silent, weary, noble lives of the uncomplaining peasants, amongst whom his own days had been mostly passed. Delaroche could not make him out at all; he was such a curious, incomprehensible, odd young fellow! “There, go your own way, if you will,” the great master said to him at last; “for my part, I can make nothing of you.”

So, shortly after, Millet and his friend Marolle set up a studio for themselves in the Rue de l’Est in Paris. The precise occasion of their going was this. Millet was anxious to obtain the Grand Prize of Rome annually offered to the younger artists, and Delaroche definitely told him that his own influence would be used on behalf of another pupil. After this, the young Norman felt that he could do better by following out his own genius in his own fashion. At the Rue de l’Est, he continued to study hard, but he also devoted a large part of his time to painting cheap portraits–what artists call “pot-boilers;” mere hasty works dashed off anyhow to earn his daily livelihood. For these pictures he got about ten to fifteen francs apiece,–in English money from eight to twelve shillings. They were painted in a theatrical style, which Millet himself detested–all pink cheeks, and red lips, and blue satin, and lace collars; whereas his own natural style was one of great austerity and a certain earnest sombreness the exact reverse of the common Parisian taste to which he ministered. However, he had to please his patrons–and, like a sensible man, he went on producing these cheap daubs to any extent required, for a living, while he endeavoured to perfect himself meanwhile for the higher art he was meditating for the future. In the great galleries of the Louvre at Paris he found abundant models which he could study in the works of the old masters; and there, poring over Michael Angelo and Mantegna, he could recompense himself a little in his spare hours for the time he was obliged to waste on pinky-white faces and taffeta gowns. To an artist by nature there is nothing harder than working perforce against the bent of one’s own innate and instinctive feelings.

In 1840, Millet found his life in Paris still so hard that he seemed for a time inclined to give up the attempt, and returned to Greville, where he painted a marine subject of the sort that was dearest to his heart–a group of sailors mending a sail. Shortly after, however, he was back in Paris–the record of these years of hard struggle is not very clear–with his wife, a Cherbourg girl whom he had imprudently married while still barely able to support himself in the utmost poverty. It was not till 1844 that the hard-working painter at last achieved his first success. It was with a picture of a milkwoman, one of his own favourite peasant subjects; and the poetry and sympathy which he had thrown into so commonplace a theme attracted the attention of many critics among the cultivated Parisian world of art. The “Milkwoman” was exhibited at the Salon (the great annual exhibition of works of art in Paris, like that of the Royal Academy in London, but on a far larger scale); and several good judges of art began immediately to inquire, “Who is Jean Francois Millet?” Hunting his address out, a party of friendly critics presented themselves at his lodgings, only to learn that Madame Millet had just died, and that her husband, half in despair, had gone back again once more to his native Norman hills and valleys.

But Millet was the last man on earth to sit down quietly with his hands folded, waiting for something or other to turn up. At Cherbourg, he set to work once more, no doubt painting more “pot-boilers” for the respectable shop-keepers of the neighbourhood–complacent portraits, perhaps, of a stout gentleman with a large watch-chain fully displayed, and of a stout lady in a black silk dress and with a vacant smile; and by hook or by crook he managed to scrape together a few hundred francs, with which once more he might return to Paris. But before he did so, he married again, this time more wisely. His wife, Catharine Lemaire, was a brave and good woman, who knew how to appreciate her husband, and to second him well in all his further struggles and endeavours. They went for a while to Havre, where Millet, in despair of getting better work, and not ashamed of doing anything honest to pay his way, actually took to painting sign-boards. In this way he saved money enough to make a fresh start in Paris. There, he continued his hard battle against the taste of the time; for French art was then dominated by the influence of men like Delaroche, or like Delacroix and Horace Vernet, who had accustomed the public to pictures of a very lofty, a very romantic, or a very fiery sort; and there were few indeed who cared for stern and sympathetic delineations of the French peasant’s unlovely life of unremitting toil, such as Millet loved to set before them. Yet, in spite of discouragement, he did well to follow out this inner prompting of his own soul; for in that direction he could do his best work–and the best work is always the best worth doing in the long run. There are some minds, of which Franklin’s is a good type, so versatile and so shifty that they can turn with advantage to any opening that chances to offer, no matter in what direction; and such minds do right in seizing every opportunity, wherever it occurs. But there are other minds, of which Gibson and Millet are excellent examples, naturally restricted to certain definite lines of thought or work; and such minds do right in persistently following up their own native talent, and refusing to be led aside by circumstances into any less natural or less promising channel.

While living in Paris at this time, Millet painted several of his favourite peasant pictures, amongst others “The Workman’s Monday,” which is a sort of parallel in painting to Burns’s “Cotter’s Saturday Night” in poetry. Indeed, there is a great deal in Millet which strongly reminds one at every step of Burns. Both were born of the agricultural labouring class; both remained peasants at heart, in feelings and sympathies, all their lives long; neither was ashamed of his origin, even in the days of his greatest fame; painter and poet alike loved best to choose their themes from the simple life of the poor whose trials and hardships they knew so well by bitter experience; and in each case they succeeded best in touching the hearts of others when they did not travel outside their own natural range of subjects. Only (if Scotchmen will allow one to say so) there was in Millet a far deeper vein of moral earnestness than in Burns; he was more profoundly impressed by the dignity and nobility of labour; in his tender sympathy there was a touch of solemn grandeur which was wanting in the too genial and easy-going Ayrshire ploughman.

In 1848, the year of revolutions, Millet painted his famous picture of “The Winnower,” since considered as one of his finest works. Yet for a long time, though the critics praised it, it could not find a purchaser; till at last M. Ledru Rollin, a well-known politician, bought it for what Millet considered the capital price of five hundred francs (about L20). It would now fetch a simply fabulous price, if offered for sale. Soon after this comparative success Millet decided to leave Paris, where the surroundings indeed were little fitted to a man of his peculiarly rural and domestic tastes. He would go where he might see the living models of his peasant friends for ever before him; where he could watch them leaning over the plough pressed deep into the earth; cutting the faggots with stout arms in the thick-grown copses; driving the cattle home at milking time with weary feet, along the endless, straight white high-roads of the French rural districts. At the same time, he must be within easy reach of Paris; for though he had almost made up his mind not to exhibit any more at the Salon–people didn’t care to see his reapers or his fishermen–he must still manage to keep himself within call of possible purchasers; and for this purpose he selected the little village of Barbizon, on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau.

The woods of Fontainebleau stand to Paris in somewhat the same relation that Windsor Great Park stands to London; only, the scenery is more forest-like, and the trees are big and antique looking. By the outskirts of this great wood stands the pretty hamlet of Barbizon, a single long street of small peasant cottages, built with the usual French rural disregard of beauty or cleanliness. At the top of the street, in a little three-roomed house, the painter and his wife settled down quietly; and here they lived for twenty-seven years, long after Millet’s name had grown to be famous in the history of contemporary French painting. An English critic, who visited the spot in the days of Millet’s greatest celebrity, was astonished to find the painter, whom he had come to see, strolling about the village in rustic clothes, and even wearing the sabots or wooden shoes which are in France the social mark of the working classes, much as the smock-frock used once to be in the remoter country districts of England. Perhaps this was a little bit of affectation on Millet’s part–a sort of proud declaration of the fact that in spite of fame and honours he still insisted upon counting himself a simple peasant; but if so, it was, after all, a very pretty and harmless affectation indeed. Better to see a man sticking pertinaciously to his wooden shoes, than turning his back upon old friends and old associations in the days of his worldly prosperity.

At Barbizon Millet’s life moved on so quietly that there is nothing to record in it almost, save a long list of pictures painted, and a gradual growth, not in popularity (for that Millet never really attained at all), but in the esteem of the best judges, which of course brought with it at last, first ease, then comfort, and finally comparative riches. Millet was able now to paint such subjects as pleased him best, and he threw himself into his work with all the fervour of his intensely earnest and poetical nature. Whatever might be the subject which he undertook, he knew how to handle it so that it became instinct with his own fine feeling for the life he saw around him. In 1852 he painted his “Man spreading Manure.” In itself, that is not a very exalted or beautiful occupation; but what Millet saw in it was the man not the manure–the toiling, sorrowing, human fellow-being, whose labour and whose spirit he knew so well how to appreciate. And in this view of the subject he makes us all at once sympathize. Other pictures of this period are such as “The Gleaners,” “The Reapers,” “A Peasant grafting a Tree,” “The Potato Planters,” and so forth. These were very different subjects indeed from the dignified kings and queens painted by Delaroche, or the fiery battle-pieces of Delacroix; but they touch a chord in our souls which those great painters fail to strike, and his treatment of them is always truthful, tender, melancholy, and exquisite.

Bit by bit, French artistic opinion began to recognize the real greatness of the retiring painter at Barbizon. He came to be looked upon as a true artist, and his pictures sold every year for increasingly large prices. Still, he had not been officially recognized; and in France, where everything, even to art and the theatre, is under governmental regulation, this want of official countenance is always severely felt. At last, in 1867, Millet was awarded the medal of the first class, and was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. The latter distinction carries with it the right to wear that little tag of ribbon on the coat which all Frenchmen prize so highly; for to be “decorated,” as it is called, is in France a spur to ambition of something the same sort as a knighthood or a peerage in England, though of course it lies within the reach of a far greater number of citizens. There is something to our ideas rather absurd in the notion of bestowing such a tag of ribbon on a man of Millet’s aims and occupations; but all honours are honours just according to the estimation of the man who receives them and the society in which he lives; and Millet no doubt prized his admission to the Legion of Honour all the more because it had been so long delayed and so little truckled for.

To the end of his days, Millet never left his beloved Barbizon. He stopped there, wandering about the fields, watching peasants at work, imprinting their images firmly upon his eye and brain, and then going home again to put the figures he had thus observed upon his vivid canvas. For, strange to say, unlike almost every other great painter, Millet never painted from a model. Instead of getting a man or woman to sit for him in the pose he required, he would go out into the meadows and look at the men and women at their actual daily occupations; and so keen and acute was his power of observation, and so retentive was his inner eye, that he could then recall almost every detail of action or manner as clearly as if he had the original present in his studio before him. As a rule, such a practice is not to be recommended to any one who wishes to draw with even moderate accuracy; constant study of the actual object, and frequent comparison by glancing from object to copy, are absolutely necessary for forming a correct draughtsman. But Millet knew his own way best; and how wonderfully minute and painstaking must his survey have been when it enabled him to reproduce the picture of a person afterwards in every detail of dress or movement.

He did not paint very fast. He preferred doing good work to much work–an almost invariable trait of all the best workmen. During the thirty-one years that he worked independently, he produced only eighty pictures–not more, on an average, than two or three a year. Compared with the rate at which most successful artists cover canvas to sell, this was very slow. But then, Millet did not paint mainly to sell; he painted to satisfy his own strict ideas of what constituted the highest art. His pictures are usually very simple in their theme; take, for example, his “Angelus,” painted at the height of his fame, in 1867. A man and a woman are working in the fields–two poor, simple-minded, weather-beaten, devout French peasants. It is nightfall; the bell called the “Angelus” rings out from the church steeple, and the two poor souls, resting for a moment from their labours, devote a few seconds to the silent prayers enjoined by their church. That is all; and yet in that one picture the sorrows, the toils, and the consolations of the needy French peasantry are summed up in a single glimpse of a pair of working and praying partners.

Millet died somewhat suddenly in 1875. Strong and hearty as he was, even the sturdy health of the Norman peasant had been undermined by the long hardships of his early struggles, and his constitution gave way at last with comparative rapidity. Still, he had lived long enough to see his fame established, to enjoy ten years of ease and honour, and to find his work cordially admired by all those for whose admiration he could have cared to make an effort. After his death, the pictures and unfinished sketches in his studio were sold for 321,000 francs, a little less than L13,000. The peasant boy of Greville had at last conquered all the difficulties which obstructed his path, and had fought his own way to fame and dignity. And in so fighting, he had steadily resisted the temptation to pander to the low and coarse taste in art of the men by whom he was surrounded. In spite of cold, and hunger, and poverty, he had gone on trying to put upon his canvas the purer, truer, and higher ideas with which his own beautiful soul was profoundly animated. In that endeavour he nobly succeeded. While too many contemporary French pictures are vicious and sensual in tone and feeling, every one of Millet’s pictures is a sermon in colour–a thing to make us sympathize more deeply with our kind, and to send us away, saddened perhaps, yet ennobled and purified.




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