December, 2004 - God's Beauty in Art

Jean-Francois Millet

1814-1875

                                        

An interesting point about Mr. Millet is that he was not brought up in a wealthy family, who spent much money for His artistic talent to grow.  Though a very simple peasant upbringing, Millet's artistic talents (created and used by God) helped people discern the humblest existence during a time of confusion and social injustice. It seemed to bring people "back to basics."  I felt he was a good example for home-educated art students who wish to continue their love of art regardless of financial setbacks or other distractions in their lives. In all things, God will be glorified. 

 

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    Jean-Francois Millet was born to a peasant farming family in a tiny town called Gruchy, near Cherbourg, France in 1814. Though he began his life as a tiller of soil in a rustic setting, the Millet family was far from undignified or unrefined. 

    The Millet family was a serious, pious group of Catholic Puritans whose stern religion was handed down from generation to generation, giving them almost an aristocratic character. His grandmother was an assiduous reader of religious writings of the day, which of course included the Holy Scriptures. As a young man, Jean was reared much by the parish priest and was able to read and study Latin. The Holy Scriptures, along with nature, poetry, the open countryside and every day struggles of life, shared in the shaping of his genius talents. It is no doubt that the strong religious influence young Jean received helped maintain him through tremendous struggles later in his life.

    As a young artist, Jean received tips, lessons and encouragement from local illustrators and artists. At age 18, he studied in Cherboug, under a teacher by the name of Langlois. Apparently recognizing his talent, the Municipal Council gave him a pension of 600 francs to go to Paris and finish his studies. Jean respected much the talents of masterful artists of 'bygone' days such as Michelangelo and Poussin, rather than the more contemporary colourists/impressionists of the day. But as he studied in Paris among affluent and popular art associates and colleagues, between 1837 and 1850, he painted a number of subjects typical to the worldly artistic culture of the day such as  women bathing, nymphs and portraits. From an artistic view point, these paintings were very well done and enjoyable, expressing a joy of living, more brightly colored than his later works. Even though his works were acceptable, in order to make a living during this time, he undertook base and ill-paid work projects such as painting signs and midwives. 

    In 1845, at age 31, Jean remarried, after losing his first wife, and began to have children. As children come, so does much responsibility. Money was scarce, especially since this was the time when the 1848 Revolution in France was taking place. Though the Republican Government was helpful in giving some relief to the artist by using his work, as time went on, he grew to dislike Paris more and more. The frivolous life styles, the worldliness and politics were quite distasteful to Jean, so he packed his family up and moved back to his original love of the countryside, to Barbizon. There he would stay the rest of his life.

    However, life in Barbizon was not easy. There were many years of fierce struggle and poverty. Millet was the father of 4 sons and 5 daughters and he knew well what it meant by want for bread, firewood, and the basic necessities of life. The baker cut off his credit, the tailor gave him summonses. He lived through the agonies of hunger, fines, warrants, and humiliation. During this time period , from about 1849 - to about 1865, Millet experienced very sad times in his life. But still, God carried him through it. "Every man", Millet once said, "is doomed to bodily pain". He also said, "It is not always the joyous side that shows itself to me. The greatest happiness I know is calm and silence". Certainly, these statements convey a sense of recognition of man's plight through life in a realistic fashion, and not the typical mask of worldly pleasures which pretend to be mankind's happiness. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread..." (Gen. 3:19).  It is during this time period that some of his most famous and influential works were created. Such famous works would include "The Gleaners" as shown above, "The Sower" (1850), "The Angelus" (1859), and "Feeding Her Birds" (1860),  

                       

                                   The Gleaners, 1857                                                                                         The Sower, 1850
                                         (Click on Picture to enlarge)                                                                                                        (Click on Picture to enlarge)
                                                                                                                                                                                                   
                     

               
                                                                                                                                            
    The Angelus, 1859     (a couple working in the fields, praying)                                      Feeding Her Birds, 1860
                                                                                                                                            (Click on Picture to enlarge)
  

    Probably the lowest point of his life was experienced in 1863 when his artwork depicted an obvious sense of extreme fatigue and exhaustion. Some of his paintings at this time included "Winter", "Man with a Hoe" and "Vine-Dresser Resting". In these works, the artist conveys a great harshness, insensibility and grimacing appearance in the characters. The figures seem so thoroughly emptied of any vitality, as if they are at their limit of life's struggles. Perhaps they are a reflection of his own inner turmoil, something that would be understandable considering his circumstances at this time in his life.

Winter           Man with a Hoe
                                                                                                                                                                 (Click on Picture to enlarge)

    During this time in France's history, peasant artists' work was hardly considered something to notice. If any talent existed among the lower class, it was used primarily in a comical sense, caricatures, etc. But Jean-Francois Millet was destined to change that. Because his inner drive and passion for the arts was a true gift from God, he maintained a subject matter that may have been uncomfortable for the elite, but eventually was noticed for the Truth that it taught. "I have no wish to suppress sorrow", he once said, "it is sorrow that gives most strength to an artist's utterance".  I suppose this is best stated in another way by the Scriptures: " ...my (God's) strength is made perfect in weakness.... for when I am weak, then am I strong."(2Co.12:9-10) and also "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Phil. 4:12,13)  It is interesting to note that though Millet did not produce obvious religious subjects, none had done more than he to make us, the viewer, grasp and feel the sanctity of life and the mystic grandeur of man's mission upon the earth. 

    Through Millet's artwork, one can't escape the harmony of a simple peasant's life with the grand scheme of the many facets of life which God has created upon the earth, and the important role everyone plays in the cycle of life. Even in the simplest and most humble existence, the beauty of the Infinite and Divine can be profoundly expressed and served. Jean-Francois Millet died at the age of 61on January 20, 1875, in Barbizon.


                                                                                             Jean-Francois Millet  

Summary: I felt Millet was a symbol of endurance and purpose within God's providence. Though a very simple existence, and not recognized much by his contemporaries, his legacy has left a valuable understanding of life as it is portrayed by God to man. It is no doubt to me, as I read about this great artist, that the most precious things to this man were not those which he had the opportunity to experience in the 'high hills' of Paris living, but rather the purest joys of love and family.  I believe this because he most likely could have returned to Paris to 'play the part' as other artists were doing. He probably would have become rather famous if he painted the typical pictures that sold on the markets. Only God could have carried him through all his struggles and pain. I believe it was his deep faith that prevented an ungodly existence and kept his focus on what was real. And as a result of his perseverance, we can enjoy real beauty through the eyes of a peasant farmer, born and raised in a small town over 100 years ago in France.

   
     Liberty, probably 1848  -- 
As you can see in this earlier painting by Millet, the subject was of a political sense, using a   far different style than his later works.

 

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