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Millet's Drawings At The Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston

( Originally Published 1914 )

IT is no small cause for congratulation that Boston should possess so many original works by Jean-Francois Millet. With the exception of Paris, it is doubtful whether any other city holds more interesting examples of the art of the Barbizon master. And this is as it should be, for Boston and New England men were among Millet's earliest admirers. Mr. Quincy Adams Shaw, Mr. Martin Brimmer, Mr. Brooks, the artists William Morris Hunt, Edward Wheelwright, William Babcock, Truman Bartlett, and others, appreciated the man and his art before many of his own countrymen. Millet told Edward Wheelwright that William Hunt was the best and most intimate friend he ever had. It is certain that Hunt knew Millet before he went to Barbizon in 1849, and following him there, profited greatly through several years of the early "fifties" by the master's teaching and companionship. Hunt, on his part, did all he could to relieve the constant financial embarrassment from which Millet suffered, by buying as many pictures from him as he could afford himself, and advising others to follow this wise example.

It might be advanced that Millet's art, by its independence of academic restraint and pure devotion to nature, had an especial attraction for artists and students from the New World. At about the same time that Millet sought the fields of Normandy and Barbizon, Henry Thoreau had gone to live at Walden Pond, and Emerson opened his essay on "Art" with the lines:

"Give to barrows, trays, and pans
Glint and glimmer of romance."

The spirit of a return to first principles was "in the air" on both sides of the Atlantic, and if Europe had its Barbizon, America had its Concord. We might trace similar tendencies in the production of Emerson's essays and of Millet's pictures. Both were the concrete results of much original observation tempered by deep thought, and the best part of both men's lives was spent in the country, in constant con-tact with nature. Emerson's material needs forced him into the lecture field, where, viva voce, he perfected the form of his essays till they became models of sententious brilliance. So Millet's needs forced him to make many sketches and drawings of his various ideas, that, thus chastened and purified, became chef s-d'oeuvre of pictorial expression.

The simplicity and restraint of Millet's designs might deceive a novice, and his suppression of irrelevant detail was sometimes considered a defect by those demanding the pretty accidentals of a less serious art. In expressing his ideas a severer choice was made, and surfaces for him were symbolic of the informing spirit that energizes nature. He painted but few portraits, and his best pictures rarely represent any particular person or place, because his genius tended toward the creation of types that human needs and functions have made universal. True it is that he usually clothed his figures in the simple garb of the French peasantry, yet this never distracts from the dominant motif, nor does it conceal the modeling or movement of the forms that lie beneath. He would have desired, as he wrote of Michael-Angelo, to be able "to personify in a single figure the good and evil of humanity." A subjective intention qualifies all his work, and lends interest to the slightest line from his pencil. Even the pastels done at the suggestion of his friend Marolle, with a view to supplying his family's needs during the dark early days at Paris, often possess qualities as serious as their subjects may have been trifling; but this temporary phase soon passed, and having decided, at all risks, to be true to his best instincts, he never afterward swerved from this supreme resolve.

Beside the paintings by Millet belonging to the Boston Museum, or exhibited on its walls as loans, it possesses also about thirty of his drawings. Twenty-one of these were presented by Mr. Martin Brimmer in July, 1876, some seventeen months after Millet died at Barbizon in January, 1875 ; and another was added to these by the bequest of Mrs. Brimmer in November, 1906. Four were given by the Rev. and Mrs. Frederick Frothingham in December, 1893, and another was lent by Mrs. Frothingham in 1894. Two were lent by the estate of Mr. Edward W. Hooper, through Mrs. Potter, in 1912, and one was purchased out of the Lawrence fund in 1905.

The larger picture of The Buckwheat Harvest, presented by Mr. Martin Brimmer, is drawn in colored crayons, and having been carried to the effect of a completed painting, finds its place among works of similar size and importance. A particular interest, however, attaches to a number of the other drawings through their relation to some of Millet's representative subjects and as preparatory studies for several of the rare etchings and prints that have placed him among the masters of estampe of the nineteenth century.

These drawings shed light on the thorough preparation that underlies his apparently spontaneous work with the needle. He left nothing to chance, and though he may have treated the subjects before in various ways, when he came to etch them special drawings were made, often of the exact size of the plates, to which the general outlines of the design could be transferred by tracing. In these drawings the figures are carefully composed and constructed, with the outlines so firmly indicated that, were they not so expressive of form, and did we not know the use for which they were intended, they might be considered heavy. But Millet's intention was to make the boundaries of his masses "tell" through all the subsequent work, and to emphasize the value of the lines, on the effective use of which the force of his etchings principally depends.

Another important object the artist had in view was to be able to present his subject unreversed in the final print, and facing in the same direction as did his primary conception of the subject. This necessitated the reversal of his tracing on the copper and drawing the design backward with the needle, which could be better done by placing the preparatory drawing be-fore a mirror and referring to it as the work proceeded—another example in "the art of taking infinite pains" so often practised by those most capable of working impromptu.

We wonder, in seeing these careful preparations, how the final work can appear so spontaneous; but once the design was properly "placed," Millet, as was his wont, drew in an expressive rather than an imitative way, keeping the drawings by him for comparison without exactly copying them. The remarkable economy of line in his etchings, so often noted by connoisseurs, may be in part due to the freedom of choice which this careful preparation permitted.

Among the drawings at the Museum are found such representative subjects as The Sower, Shepherdess Knitting, The Gleaners, Woman Feeding the Child, Peasant with a Wheelbarrow, Woman Churning, Woman Emptying a Pail, Women Sewing, beside other subjects, both figures and landscapes, in crayon, pen and ink, and water-colors. Most of them have been drawn in black chalk—crayon Conte—on a roughish hand-made white or slightly tinted paper. Millet liked nothing garish or too new, and sometimes chose a tint of gray or buff, on which he could add white chalk in the highest lights. Now and then the presence of holes made by the binder's needle along the edge indicates the extraction of an especially well-toned piece from some ancient book. In his chalk-drawings, after having sketched in the ensemble of the movement and general form with light touches, his touch became gradually more definite and precise as he advanced in perfecting the forms, till at last the heaviest and darkest markings were added to strengthen parts to which he wished to attract particular attention, or to increase the perspective effect and relief by accenting the depressions nearer and parallel to the eye. Nothing seems to have been effaced as the work proceeded, and any slight deviations from the lines first drawn were added frankly with-out erasures.

As such drawings were done principally for his own instruction and use, independently of any other consideration or criticism, they permit a more intimate view of the artist's intentions and method than works made to order or for exhibition. They reveal Millet at moments when, absorbed by his idea, he was least conscious of outside observation, and are all the more precious as unqualified expressions of his personality.

His thorough knowledge of human anatomy permitted him to build his figures from the bone and muscles up as did Michael-Angelo, Leonardo, and others of the old masters, and I have seen studies, notably the figure of Boaz for the Ruth and Boaz, sketched as a skeleton in the same position as shown in the finished painting. This analysis of the play of the articulations and muscles proper to the movement of the figure, before clothing it, is one of the secrets of his power.

Having inherited the peasant's virtues of patience and continuity, when he had clearly conceived his idea of a given subject he never tired of perfecting its form, and, with this object in view, repeated essays were made till he had attained what seemed to be the best possible manner for its final presentation. Among the Museum drawings, The Sower agrees in its general movement and lines with his well-known paintings and unique lithograph of the same subject. It was probably done after some fresh observation of nature, and the movement, especially that of the right arm swung back to the momentary point of rigidity that precedes its rhythmic return as it flings the grain, has been expressed with marked intensity. The arm, as it is drawn here, might seem almost too large and heavy, but Millet felt that it was the most important agent in sowing by hand and sought to give it a maximum of strength. This drawing was probably an early essay of the subject, for though the hillside at the back is suggested by a few lines, there is no indication yet of the man and team harrowing-in the grain that appear in later versions. A few free touches indicate the flock of crows in the sky to the left, symbols of the dependent and opposing forces that generally accompany the bread-winner's toil. The figure is clothed as an ordinary Barbizon peasant, with the drapery less tightly drawn to the body than in the well-known paintings and lithograph of the subject, and which lends to these a more sculpturesque and archaic air. This drawing was used also in Millet's pastel showing the plain of Barbizon and the Tower of Chailly in the distance as a more ample background to the sower, and of which an engraving in facsimile has been published.

The drawing of the Shepherdess Knitting was made from nature, and bears a direct relation to Millet's etching of the subject. It was a study of certain facts necessary for his final composition of La Grande Bergere. The kerchiefed head, and the hands knitting, are very carefully drawn, while the lower parts of the figure are treated more summarily. In the etching, Millet made some picturesque breaks and changes in the lines of the capeline, or hooded cape, and placed the shepherdess with her back against a rock, instead of leaning her shoulder against a tree as indicated in the drawing. This change improved the position, by bringing the feet forward, and giving to the figure a firmer poise. A few lines to the left suggest a sheep's head and some saplings that reappear more developed in the etching.

Such drawings as this, done directly from nature, differ materially from those in which the artist was working as it were from an interior vision. In these more purely imitative drawings, the accidental features of the model are noted with less severity in the choice of lines and forms. As notations of facts, done for reference and comparison, they must be looked at from the point of view that controlled their production. Another Landscape with Shepherdess and Sheep is more complete in its composition. Here the shepherdess leans back against a bank such as often re-places fences between fields in Normandy. The figure is in the shadow of an overhanging bush, and this, with the group of sheep scattered to the left, again recalls the etching, in which elements of the two last-mentioned drawings are combined.

As already stated, Millet sometimes would draw figures from life of the exact size and with the same surroundings as in the completed picture. The Water-Carrier is a counterpart of the heliograph on glass entitled, in Le Brun's catalogue, Femme vidant un Sean. Millet painted this subject and the picture was lately seen at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in the Vanderbilt Loan Collection. A woodcut engraved by his brother Pierre on Millet's design also repeats it. A young peasant woman has just drawn a bucket of water from the rustic farmyard well, and has turned to empty it into one of the two cannes of antique Norman form that stand on the ground before her. The modeling of the trim, compact figure as she bends forward, and the drawing of the strong arms and hands that balance the pail, are marvels of just observation; while the heavier touches of black crayon about the sabot-shod feet call attention to the fixed points that bear the weight and strain, and from which the movement of the upper part of the figure radiates.

Millet made but two heliographs on glass, by the method invented by Cuvelier Pere, and used more frequently by Corot, Daubigny, and Jacque. Proofs of these are extremely rare, and the Museum is fortunate in possessing one. This reveals in its outlines an exact tracing of the drawing just mentioned, to which there were added details as the work proceeded; but in the heliograph the design is shown reversed, due perhaps to Millet's inexperience of the photographic printing-process or because he considered its reversal in this case unimportant.

Close observation of the interplay of muscular effort and the force of gravitation is made evident in the drawing of a Peasant with a Wheelbarrow, which is a preparation for the etching of similar title. The heavily loaded barrow pulls the arms down in a vertical direction to their extreme limit, as the hands firmly grasp the handles, but the muscular legs and shoulders react against this, and furnish the propelling force. The suggestion of movement is increased by the slight bow of the left leg, with its contracted muscles and tendons, contrasted with the relieved tension of the right foot as it is about to leave the ground. These qualities have been conveyed to the etching as far as the bitten line would permit, and if the subtle suggestion of movement in the figure, possible only in an original drawing, has been somewhat modified, this has been compensated for by an added charm of detail in the rustic surroundings.

A Woman Churning is the drawing from which this subject also was etched, though Millet has treated the same general design in various media. Here the buxom housewife seems as solidly planted on the ground as the huge churn itself, while agitating the dasher with her muscular arms. The cream-loving cat that rubs against her skirts is a subtle touch of humor. The lines of the shelves, with their perspective of creampots and utensils, and the sacks on a stand at the back, correspond to the same details in the etching, which was executed, as was also the Peasant with a Wheelbarrow, in 1855.

Feeding the Child is the title of one of the more carefully finished drawings corresponding with the etching done in 1861, and published in the Gazette des Beaux Art in September of that year, for which Mil-let's daughter, Mme. Heymann, and her baby were the models. It is on a buff-toned paper, with every detail of the figures and drapery composed and modeled in a manner that betokens the artist's intimate and paternal interest in his subject. One feels that Millet enjoyed depicting the vigorous little limbs and figure of his grandchild. The baby's arms and hands are held back under a sort of napkin tied round the waist, pre-venting their interference with the transfer of a spoonful of bouillie—which the young mother is cooling by blowing upon it—to the pouting and expectant mouth.

Millet's painting of The Gleaners, presented to the Museum of the Louvre in 1889 by Mme. Pommery, shares with The Angelus and The Sower the highest place in the estimation of many who delight in comparing and classifying the artist's works; and this appreciation is justified by the beauty of the subject, the strength of its composition, and its solid execution. His final conception of the subject was the culmination of many studies that, commencing with a single figure bending to pick up an ear of wheat, grew into two and at last to the three women grouped as we see them in the painting mentioned and in the well-known etching. The drawing which the Museum possesses represents one of the stages in this progression ; and while the general form of the grouping corresponds to that of the Louvre picture and etching, there are certain differences of detail. The shape, too, is "upright" in the drawing in order to give place for the monumental stacks that are being built in the background, contrasting their opulent . growth with the rarity of the stray ears of wheat the women are gathering near by. Millet made a cabinet-sized painting of this form of the subject, but in the larger work first shown in the Salon of 1857, besides altering the shape to a more horizontal form, he placed the stacks and other details much farther back, so that the women's figures should dominate the composition. When he was completing the picture he wrote to Theodore Rousseau: "I am working like a slave to get my picture of The Gleaners done in time. I really do not know what will be the result of all the trouble I have taken. There are days when I feel as if this unhappy picture had no meaning. In any case, I mean to devote a quiet month's work to it. If only it does not turn out too disgraceful!" It was recognized at once as the best thing Millet had yet done, though some critics, particularly Paul de Saint Victor, called the figures "the three Fates of pauperism." Such an epithet seems less applicable to the Louvre picture and the etching, where the women suggest a certain well-being and contentment with their lot, than to the figures in the Museum drawing, forcibly 'sketched in the heat of inspiration, where an evident leanness in the foreground gleaner and the hurrying movement of the other two betoken need. Thus often do these initial expressions of the artist's idea, especially in the case of Millet, convey a more powerful impression to the discerning eye and mind than works in which the first bright flash of inspiration may have been modified by long periods of toil.

A small drawing, Women Sewing, is the preparation for his etching La Veillee, sometimes called The Watchers, but which might be better translated The Evening Task. The outlines of the two figures bending over their work in the drawing, would suggest a daylight effect if we did not notice the stand holding an antique lamp that is placed between them. In the etching, which was made on zinc, and of which—it having been over-bitten—but few proofs were made, masses of surrounding shadow enhance the mystery of the effect caused by the feeble and flickering light, though the general outlines still correspond to those in the drawing. This is made on a smooth yellowish half-transparent paper that has taken the crayon less easily than would have been the case with a rougher surface. One interesting note is the indication of the base of the lamp-stand by a black dot where it touches the floor, without regard for the intervening figure, so that all the shadows cast on the floor might be placed in their true perspective forms as they radiate from this point.

The drawing of the head of a peasant half shaded by a hat, with a blouse tied round the shoulders, over which a sickle fits, is a study for the head of Boaz in the painting which Millet first called Ruth and Boaz, but which appeared at the Salon of 1853 as Le Repas des Moissonneurs. It was bought by Mr. Martin Brimmer and presented to the Museum, and his widow, Mrs. Brimmer, bequeathed the present drawing. Millet's first idea was to follow the biblical narrative, while clothing his figures in the dress of French peasants. The moment chosen was when Boaz recommended the young Moabitess to the good-will of his harvesters while inviting her to join in their midday repast. Corresponding in its general form, the head of Boaz in the sketch turns rather more to the right than in the painting. The First Step and The Reading Lesson are two subjects typical of important moments in child-life. In the first-named the father has thrown down his spade and is crouching with extended arms, encouraging the little child to take its first step from the arms of the mother, who is bending down to support it. In The Reading Lesson, a few strong strokes depict the dutiful attention of a little girl, as she seeks to spell out, word by word, the contents of an open book that the mother holds on her lap. These sketches were the points de depart of several other drawings and pictures.

The Shepherd with Flock and Twilight Landscape have this in common, that the first-named subject forms a background for the second composition. The dark-cloaked figure of the shepherd, followed by his flock, appears in silhouette against the evening sky as they pass over the brow of a hill toward some woods at the left ; and this group again appears in the Twilight Landscape, though a crescent moon is now added to the slightly clouded sky, and a group in the foreground shows a laborer putting on his coat after work, while his wife, near by, ties up some sacks of potatoes—the day's harvest—that a waiting donkey with panniers will soon carry home.

Such subjects recall the intense pastoral poetry and rustic charm of Virgil's "Georgics." These were written, as we know, with the intention of recalling the Roman people to the charms of country life ; and who knows how great an influence of the same salutary sort some of Millet's pictures may have exerted in modern times ?

Contemporary critics often accused Millet of revolutionary intentions in presenting certain rustic types as he saw them, unrelieved by any affected prettiness or gaiety. Such an intention never entered his thoughts. Coming of peasant stock, he himself had taken part in the work of the fields, which he loved to represent and found beautiful in all its phases, though the graver side appealed to him most of all.

In the forest of Fontainebleau and other parts of France permission is given on certain days of the week to gather the broken branches and twigs that fall from the trees, and it is usually the women, often aged ones, who, after the work of the open fields ends in the late fall and winter, gather this harvest of fuel. Often in groups of two or three, they glean the forest, and make huge fagots, sometimes much larger than themselves, under which they bend their backs to bear them home to the village. In straightening themselves the end of the fagots touches the ground, and they are thus enabled to rest from time to time.

Millet had often seen these heavily loaded figures come mysteriously and silently out of the forest in the gloom of the evening, and the two drawings of Fagot Gatherers at the Museum convey an impression which he carried out in several larger works. One of them depicts a vista of forest with large tree trunks near the foreground, between which the fagot-laden women are seen descending the hillside from the thicker woods of the middle distance ; while in the other drawing the hooded figures dominate the composition, and the woman nearest us has picked up an extra branch which she drags after her with her left hand while supporting the fagot with her right.

In a letter to Sensier, written in 1850, Millet recalls a similar impression :

"You are sitting under a tree, enjoying all the comfort and quiet which it is possible to find in this life, when suddenly you see a poor creature loaded with a heavy fagot coming up the narrow path opposite. The unexpected and always striking way in which this figure appears before your eyes reminds you instantly of the sad fate of humanity—weariness. The impression is similar to that which La Fontaine expresses in his fable of the wood-cutter :

" 'Quel plaisir a-t-il eu depuis qu'il est au monde?
En est-il un plus pauvre en la machine ronde?'

And he remarks later in the same letter: "Nevertheless, for me it is true humanity and great poetry."

A sketch in red chalk is an early essay of Carrying Home the New-born Calf. It is composed with the same elements—two men carrying the calf on an improvised litter, the mother-cow following closely and a woman near by—as in later compositions of the subject. Here, however, they move from right to left, instead of from left to right as in the painting shown in the Salon of 1864 and other versions.

Millet's close observation of precise movement is expressed in a letter written to Sensier as a reply to certain criticisms that appeared ridiculing the steady way in which the men walk, keeping step while carrying the calf :

"As to what Jean Rousseau says of my peasants carrying a calf as if it were the Holy Sacrament or the bull Apis, how does he expect them to carry it? If he admits they carry it well, I ask no more, but I should like to tell him that the expression of two men carrying a load on a litter naturally depends on the weight which rests upon their arms. Thus, if the weight is even, their expression will be the same, whether they bear, the Ark of the Covenant or a calf, an ingot of gold or a stone. And even if these men were filled with the most profound veneration for their burden, they would still be subject to the laws of gravity and their expression must remain the same. . . . Any one can notice how they keep step. Let M. Jean Rousseau and one of his friends carry a similar load and yet walk in their ordinary way! Apparently these gentlemen are not aware that a false step on their part may upset the load ! !"

This respect for the primal law of gravity is shown also in a small crayon drawing, The Water-carrier. Its beauty depends principally on the graceful, sinuous movement of the woman's figure as she ascends a pathway with her back toward us. The slight turn of the body on the hips and the careful placing of the feet in walking are consequent to the weight of the pail of water poised on her right shoulder. The remaining drawing in black chalk, a Woman Tending a Cow, recalls by its solid sculpturesque construction and bucolic strength the painting of the Salon of 1859, which was bought by the Emperor Napoleon III and presented to the museum of the town of Bourgen-Bresse.

Ten drawings in pen and ink and water-colors re-call the journey Millet made to Vichy and Cusset during the summer of 1866, accompanied by Mme. Millet, and which he mentions in several letters. The outlines are carefully traced in brown ink, with a view to the large expression of form and the just proportions of perspective planes. Most of them are retouched with water-colors, of which the chromatic gamut is re-strained to various tones of blue, brown, green, and gray. Two of the smaller water-colors, only about two by four inches in size, have qualities that evoke souvenirs of Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain. They all suggest the quaint beauty of the French countryside, depicted with Millet's characteristic strength and precision.

In these days of "ists" and "isms" it is refreshing to turn aside for a time to the contemplation of these drawings. Their sane and classic serenity is reassuring, as we experience again the pleasure and profit that communion with the genius of this "Michael-Angelo of the glebe" always affords.

For further information about Jean-Francois Millet:
Jean-Francois Millet Biography
Millet And Some Others


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