Sunday, 13 July 2008


“I want to make the trivial serve to express the sublime.” – Jean-François Millet

For Art Sunday today, a painter representing the “realist” school of France, active in the mid-19th century. Realists were very much concerned to paint the world "as it is" without idealisation. They reproduced objects as observed in nature (as opposed to drawing upon the imagination). They focussed on everyday and commonplace themes, not prettifying, nor compromising anything. They served a social purpose by depicting the labours and struggles of average workers and peasants. Their canvasses nowadays appear romantic and are tinged with an air of nostalgia, as the type of life they depicted is sufficiently far removed from our own reality, so as to evoke some lost golden age when life was less complicated and closer to the ideal. Theya re represented by Courbet, Daumier, Millet, Van Gogh’s early works and to an extent by Lautrec.

Jean-Francois Millet was born on October 4th, 1814, in Gruchy, near Gréville, France. He
died January 20th, 1875, Barbizon. He was renowned for his peasant subjects. Millet spent his youth working on the land, but by the age of 19 he was studying art in Cherbourg. In 1837 he arrived in Paris and eventually enrolled in the studio of Paul Delaroche, where he seems to have remained until 1839. After the rejection of one of his entries for the Salon of 1840, Millet returned to Cherbourg, where he remained during most of 1841, painting portraits. He achieved his first success in 1844 with “The Milkmaid” and a large pastel, “The Riding Lesson,” that has a sensual character typical of a large part of his production during the 1840s.

The peasant subjects, which from the early 1850s were to be Millet's principal concern, made their first important appearance at the Salon of 1848 with “The Winnower,” later destroyed by fire. In 1849, after a period of great hardship, Millet left Paris to settle in Barbizon, a small hamlet in the forest of Fontainebleau. He continued to exhibit paintings of peasants, and, as a result, periodically faced the charge of being a socialist. Letters of the period defending Millet's position underline the fundamentally classical nature of his approach to painting. By the mid-1860s, Millet's work was beginning to be in demand; official recognition came in 1868, after nine major paintings had been shown at the exposition of 1867. Important collections of Millet's pictures are to be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in the Louvre.

The earnest simplicity of some of Millet’s paintings can sometimes appear to approach a saccharine sweetness, which can seem almost kitch in its appeal. However, There is much to be admired in his work and it was Millet’s painting that set the scene for impressionism. Van Gogh admired his work greatly and copied several of his canvasses.

One of the most famous of Millet’s paintings, here reproduced is “The Angelus”. This is a prayer practice rich in doctrine and devotion. This practice commemorates the mystery of the Incarnation by reciting certain versicles and responses with three Hail Marys and a special concluding prayer. It used to be recited morning, noon and evening. The church bells rang –three tolls for each of the invocations and nine for the concluding prayer.

The Angelus traces its beginnings to the thirteenth century. In that era bells were often inscribed with the angelic salutation. Although the origin of the Angelus is obscure, it is certain that the morning, midday and evening Angelus did not develop simultaneously. By the sixteenth century the various customs were unified. The morning prayer was recited to commemorate Christ's resurrection; at noon, Christ's passion; and in the evening to recall the Incarnation, since St. Bonaventure taught that the angel's visit to Mary came at evening.

Millet depicts a man and a woman standing in a field. They are farmers. He holds his cap reverently as he stands with bowed head, and she in a white cap and long blue apron over her dress clasps her hands as a prayerful look sets her face. They pause in prayer near the end of the workday. At the woman's feet is a basket of potatoes, and at her far side rests a wheelbarrow full of empty sacks. At the side of the man is a pitchfork spiked upright in the ground. The breaking clouds are blushed with light as birds flit in the twilight. The viewer can almost hear the bells ringing in the spire of the church in the distant right of the painting. Millet was accused of mawkishness and sentimentality in his depiction of this simple scene. However, this was a familiar scene to him and one could observe it happening many a time in the fields of the French countryside during Millet’s time.

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