Two exhibitions at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille pay tribute to Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Finally, we begin to measure the considerable influence of this painter-farmer passionate about ordinary people on European and American artists.


At the end of the department of La Manche, in the northwest, at the most remote and wildest place, is the tip of La Hague, known today for its nuclear site. It is there, in a hamlet 100 meters from the sea, that is born in 1814 Jean-François Millet1.

As a peasant child, he works on the farm and even takes care of it temporarily when his father dies. Thanks to a parish priest, he goes to a little instruction. While visiting the Cherbourg Museum of Fine Arts, he feels an interest in painting. At the age of 19, he began to train by making copies, and then began making personal compositions and achieved some local successes. He is 23 years old when the municipality of Cherbourg grants him a scholarship. He went to Paris and entered the École des Beaux-Arts.

Millet himself considers that he "Can not paint"

He leads for a while a Parisian life and itinerant. However, he does not like it in town. At age 35, he flees the capital to settle in Barbizon, on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau. He does not leave this rural place where he will live until his death as a man of the countryside. He is a peasant at heart and is felt as such. Many also consider him uneducated, because of his rough appearance and bushy beard, but that is false. He is used to reading regularly, as others eat their soup at a fixed time. Depending on the day, he travels Montaigne, Virgil, Chateaubriand, Fenimore Cooper, Hugo or Milton. His favorite reading is, however, the Bible. He feels a deep faith that echoes the unconditional and somewhat terrifying devotion, it seems, of his mother and grandmother. Religion inspires or inhibits it, depending on the situation. So, after the death of his first wife, he meets another woman. He makes her nine children, but dares not marry her. It does not happen, he believes, to remarry when one is a Christian. He will wait, to take the step, the death of all his ancestors of the Cotentin. They will never know the existence of the artist's family in Barbizon. Barbey d'Aurevilly sums up Millet's personality with these two words: "biblical and indigenous".

Millet's career begins as that of a very secondary artist. He does not win any prize. He shows no originality in the choice of his subjects. He mostly performs portraits on demand. His bill is often poor and flat. "A dry and clumsy execution"Delacroix notes in his diary. Millet himself considers that he "Can not paint" in comparison with other Barbizon artists, such as Théodore Rousseau. All in all, the name of Millet should have disappeared from our memories. However, several events and evolutions have combined to make, almost fortuitously, a very singular and very important artist.

First of all, he stops in front of the Dutch paintings during his first visits to the Cherbourg museum, then to the Louvre. The essential point is that the Dutch, especially those of the XVIIe, represent scenes from everyday life. Brueghel the Elder, in the preceding century, even brushed peasants. This "Dutch" model is what Millet mainly retains from the history of art. Slow maturation occurs. Gradually, he feels entitled to paint ordinary subjects "to the Dutch".

Over time, he makes a few friendships that contribute to his artistic emancipation. In particular, he sympathizes with Honoré Daumier who, besides his satire of the powerful, excels in the representation of the poor. Millet also meets a man who, after being a sailor, has converted to a paper merchant. His name is Eugene Boudin and starts painting. The two friends encourage each other on the path of realism.

For whom does the angelus ring?

"L'Angelus", entre 1857 et 1859, huile sur toile, 55 x 66 cm, Paris, musée d'Orsay / Musée d'Orsay, RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
"The Angelus", between 1857 and 1859, oil on canvas, 55 x 66 cm, Paris, Musée d'Orsay / Orsay Museum, RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

For a good half-century, from the end of the XIXe in the inter-war period, The Angelus is the most famous painting in the world. This small format a little dull, however, seems a secondary play in the eyes of its author. It starts badly because the sponsor does not take possession and Millet is worried. He decides to give it to another collector who is not long in reselling it and the painting passes from hand to hand over the years.

Frequent returns to the market sometimes give rise to phenomena of cumulative speculation. Of course, this does not apply to large historical paintings that are tributary to a place and remain forever off the market. Small formats, like securities, can however trigger runaways. It is this phenomenon that brings luck to the Impressionists. It is also what brings to the fore The Angelus. If this painting had measured three meters wide, it probably would not have known the same fate.

In 1889, The Angelus reached such peaks that it is spoken of in the Chamber of Deputies where some require the State to acquire. The debate is heated. One could imagine that conservatives of the time are sensitive to this eulogy of the land and religion. In reality, it is they who are the most opposed to it, because they see it as a denunciation of peasant poverty. The left is also divided. His artistic patriotism comes into conflict with the demand for secularism, which is harmed by the religiosity of the painting. Finally, the public authorities decide. However, the painting is blown by a wealthy American and goes to the United States in general consternation. However, a few years later, it is again bought for an extravagant sum by a French collector, Alfred Chauchard, owner of the Grands Magasins du Louvre. The work is bequeathed to the state upon his death in 1909.

Since then, The Angelus begins a museum career. The cult painting also becomes a diplomatic tool. The Quai d'Orsay sends it here and there, in the countries to honor especially. The comments on this web swell up to delirium. It is said that it is the only painting where one "hears the bells ring". Salvador Dalí dedicates to him a book and several compositions. He says first that under the basket, in the thickness of the painting, there would be the grave of a child and we radiograph the work to verify his words. A little later, his "paranoid-critical" thinking leads him to affirm that the peasant hides his hat with his erect penis and that the lady is about to give him a head to protest against this ancestral aggression. In 1932, the canvas even undergoes, such Venus of Velasquez, a knife attack. Some still discern in the poster of François Mitterrand "La force tranquille" an ultimate reincarnation of The Angelus. However, little by little, Millet's painting slips on the slope of forgetfulness and kitsch. The podium of the most famous work in the world is now occupied by The Mona Lisa, Guernica and The urinal (Fountain) of Marcel Duchamp. The times are changing.

Right sees in some of his works a call for sedition

With the revolution of 1848 emerges a new look at popular topics. Millet feels more and more legitimate to paint what really interests him: his poor origins and the world of the countryside.

He begins to depict scenes of peasant life in a surprisingly simple, almost objective way. Until then, the peasants were often represented as kind extras embellishing the landscapes, even as bucolic shepherds and shepherds. Millet paints the rural world as he sees it, without adding any more and without ulterior motives. He never gives in to sentimentalism, misery or the picturesque. He is just realistic.

The right of the time, however, sees a social critique and even, in some paintings as The Gleaners, a call for sedition. The peasantry is still perceived as a dangerous class. The memory of the jacqueries is near. The Second Republic, with universal suffrage, gives the right to vote to the peasant masses and this worries some. However, Millet is absolutely apolitical. He never takes a position. Immaturity or wisdom, his canvases do not illustrate any idea, they do not serve any ideology. Unlike socialist realism and many figurative works ofe century, Millet places his painting before interpretations and injunctions, in the very soil of experience. It is undoubtedly his strength.

His influence is immense. In the second half of the XIXe century, indeed, appear many painters called "naturalists", in France and in the world, who are interested in ordinary men. Millet is then a precursor. We retain less his bill, long unkempt, as his propensity to show the real social life. Certainly, in his last period, he considerably improves his manner, bringing it to the level of that of the other painters of Barbizon. After him, artists such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, Jules Breton, the Glasgow Boys or the Russian Ambulants excel in the painting of rural life, often developing a sumptuous pictoriality, subtle and incisive. Many other naturalists explore the urban and industrial world. Let us quote, for example, the Belgian Constantin Meunier, painter and sculptor of life in the Borinage, of which Rodin will say: "He has the grandeur of Millet. "

His influence in XXe century extends well beyond painting

Strangely, it's mostly in the United States and the United States.century that the posterity of Millet takes all its magnitude. This is the subject of a second exhibition, "Millet USA". Already in Barbizon, many American artists visit him. Millet's way echoes their desire to paint America's great outdoors. These artists then buy Millet to museums in full phase of constitution of their collections. In addition, one of Millet's brothers opened a gallery in the United States. The Millet phenomenon is a snowball. So much of his work is currently on the other side of the Atlantic.

The paintings of Millet influence Robert Henri (1865-1929), a very influential painter, teaching in several schools of art and instigator of a movement called "Ashcan School" ("school of trash") which shows a keen interest in social issues and features such fascinating artists as George Bellows or John Sloan. Among the students enrolled in Henry's class, we also note the name Leon Trotsky, installed in New York just before the revolution of 1917. It is also in this context that another student of Henri, Edward Hooper, discovers Millet who will have a great influence on him. Hooper is even one of the rare artists to take over the very sober and finely vibrating Millet, his taste for empty spaces and contemplative atmospheres.

However, Millet's influence extends far beyond painting. At the beginning of the XXe century, the American photographers take model on the painter-peasant to account without pathos of the misery of the peasants and the workers in their exodus to the West. Millet is therefore a clear inspiration for Lewis W. Hine, who follows migrants employed on farms and in industrial cities, and whose fate is his "portraits of people at work" (Men at Work, 1932) raise awareness. Interest is still increasing with the Great Depression. As part of the New Deal, Roosevelt's Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein commissioned photographic campaigns to extend the movement begun at the turn of the century.

Also in the cinema, scenes from Griffith, John Ford, Murnau, Cimino testify to the influence of Millet. Roman Polanski, director of the pastoral drama Tess (1979), says: "I spent part of my childhood in the countryside, a Polish countryside where nothing had changed for centuries. Years later, I found this immutable reality, almost eternal, on the canvases of Jean-François Millet. Tesswhich is constantly inspired by it, seeks to resuscitate these landscapes and the men who once inhabited them. "

Before going through these two exhibitions, many visitors have, it seems, a rather negative image of Millet, often perceived as obsolete, even kitsch. It is true that he really does not have any descendants to put forward in modernity or contemporary art, with the exception, perhaps, of the Salvador Dalí case. One could thus remain with the idea that Millet belongs to another artistic universe, another "paradigm" as the sociologists say, a paradigm gone. After seeing the exhibitions, it's hard not to radically change your mind. Millet, and with him probably a number of artists of the nineteenthe, have an abundant posterity in the XXe century, on the margins of official historiography. The history of art is undoubtedly more complex and plural than is usually said.

In the end, the Millet exhibition is one of the most interesting to see in France at the moment. It is surprising that this event, originally planned in Paris at the Grand Palais, was "sent to the provinces". It is true that the National Galleries must give way to an uninterrupted flow of revisited Impressionists and other Gauguin rediscovered. Fortunately, the province exists and we must thank very much the museum and the City of Lille for hosting the event at short notice.

"Jean-François Millet" and "Millet USA", Palace of Fine Arts Lille, until January 22.