New York

Jean-François Millet, Le départ pour les champs (The Departure for the Fields), 1863, conté crayon on paper, 17 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Jean-François Millet, Le départ pour les champs (The Departure for the Fields), 1863, conté crayon on paper, 17 1⁄4 × 11 3⁄4".

Jean-François Millet

It is hard to believe French painter Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) was ever considered a “dangerous” artist—as Paul Delaroche, who was his teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, once said—because he broke with the academy’s dictates, eschewing the history-painting tradition in favor of less grandiose subjects, such as peasant farmers and the rural landscape.

Indeed, it was dangerous to be a realist and a humanist, to deal with the “human side of art,” as Millet himself once put it. He was radical not only for what he chose to depict, but also for his unique handling of paint. He celebrated its materiality—critic Théophile Gautier recognized this when he saw Millet’s Le semeur (The Sower), 1850, saying that the artist seemed to have rendered his picture with “the very earth” to which the work’s solitary subject was dutifully tending. One might say that Millet’s art was a call to social revolution because of his focus on gleaners, “the poorest members of rural society, who were granted permission to gather leftover scraps of wheat after the harvest,” as he had once written. To my mind, a subversive critical consciousness informs the artist’s ennobled portrayals of these laborers, solemnly at work. To accord these men and women dignity by seeing them as individuals was to threaten the power of the landowners—the “higher” classes—on whose property they toiled. It’s also worth noting that a good many of Millet’s paintings were made after the Revolutions of 1848, the same year that Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was published.

The nineteen drawings by Millet in this exhibition—seventeen in black-and-white and two in color, most of them quick sketches save for a pair of relatively finished portraits—revealed quite beautifully the artist’s tender regard for his subjects. Anonymous individuals are typically shown patiently at work, as in Le vannier (The Basket Maker), ca. 1845–50, and the undated Meunier chargeant un sac de blé sur son cheval (A Miller Loading a Sack of Flour onto His Horse). Another drawing, Le départ pour les champs (The Departure for the Fields), 1863, was a particularly wonderful conté-crayon-on-paper rendering of a young peasant couple doing exactly as the title describes, with their heads held high and bodies unbowed. The man carries a pitchfork over his shoulder as the woman beside him squints at the viewer. Self-possessed and assured, they epitomize Millet’s respect for common people. There seemed to be little stoicism or resentment in many of Millet’s figures here—they were confident, capable, and ready to tackle any task set before them.

The exhibition also included Étude pour jeune femme endormie, vue de dos (Study for Young Woman Asleep, Seen from the Back), 1846–47, and La tentation du Christ (The Temptation of Christ), ca. 1860, its strokes rather trivial and tentative compared to the insistent and intense line work of the subject’s naked body in the former. Three other aesthetically satisfying and meticulously detailed gems here—Etude d’arbres (Study of Trees), date unknown; L’allée bordée d’arbres, Vichy (The Path Lined with Trees, Vichy), ca. 1866–67; and Chemin montant aux environs de Vichy, Auvergne (The Winding Road Near Vichy, Auvergne), ca. 1866–68—reminded us that Millet was one of the founders of the Barbizon School, established near the forest of Fontainebleau right outside Paris. Though exquisite in their facture and delicacy, these works never veer into the enervating turgidity of the conservative French academy. They exemplify the Barbizon’s ethos of unvarnished humility and acceptance of nature. Millet’s radical anti-Neoclassicism manages to embrace both beauty and a profound sense of social consciousness in startlingly equal measure.