The Peasant Painter
Can you remember the first
time you saw a National
Geographic? The exotic
landscapes and strange peasants
have tickled our imaginations
for decades. But where did the
interest in peasants find its roots?
Thousands of miles from home
Whenever I start working with someone for the first time, I always ask them “If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go?” The responses vary from the Antarctic to the Sahara…never has anyone said “my own back yard.” For some reason, of which I could hardly explain, exploration seems to be at the heart of artistic impulses. I am no different. The idea of jumping on a plane and exploring a new landscape often keeps me up at night. Staring into the glow of my apartment window, my thoughts fly through the places I have been and search the globe for my next destination.
Jean-Francois Millet never boarded a plane, but he did leave his home for Paris. As a young painter, he won a scholarship to continue painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche. The well to do Parisian was an unlikely match for Millet, who would come to embody the “Peasant Painter”. While in his formative years the provincial painter from Grenville France (on the Cotentin Peninsula) Millet remarked about Delaroche’s “…in the work of Delaroche, I could see nothing but large size illustrations and histrionic effects without any real feeling.”
If you are an artist or photographer who feels like the art of your era is dead, without thought, or real meaning, do not despair. It is a common feeling for many artists big and small. So what was Millet to do? He looked to the past and artists like Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Poussain, and Rembrandt. For Rembrandt he reserved these thoughts:
“I felt I would have to stand
there a long time before
I could enter into the
genius of this man.”
—Jean Francois Millet
Millet had great regard for the formal qualities of these great artists and used their tools as he decided to approach a subject matter which rang true to his interests. Like many artists Millet did not discover his subject matter immediately. He painted a number of successful portraits, a few religious paintings (only four in his career) and a number of nudes. As the story goes, one day Millet overheard two gentleman looking at a painting of a nude in the window of the gallery. One of the men remarked that it must have been a Millet, who always painted nudes. This offhanded comment brought Millet’s canvases of bare backsides to a crushing halt. It is rather unfortunate because he was quite good at both portraits and nudes. But let no artist be dissuaded by the tastes of others, Millet had other subjects in mind.
The end of Paris
When Millet was thirty five he moved to Barbizon, thirty miles south east of Paris. He had established a relationship with Goupil’s gallery, so he had an agent back in the the city. Goupil’s would eventually be the place of employment for a young Dutchman named Vincent Van Gogh. In spite of his failed career as an art dealer, young Vincent was profoundly affected by the work of Millet’s that he saw and Goupil’s. With gallery representation tentatively secured and a few minor commissions completed Millet decided to move to the artistic community outside of the Fontainbleau forest.
In Millet’s mind the Fontainbleau forest was the reserve of the wealthy. It hosted earlier artists like the Clouets, father and son, and was considered to be a picturesque escape from the city. It was a beautiful location. The country side was relatively free from the cholera epidemic which swept through Paris, making it a good home for Millet’s family. Millet was born into a lower middle class family. He did not share the pedigree of the other artists in the Barbizon. His interest in the Barbizon was not the fantasy of the forests reserved for the rich. Though he does not come across as terribly political, Millet certainly did not possess an interest in the high brow life that he saw in Delaroche’s Parisian studio. Instead he walked out of the forest and into the fields.
An important concept which I emphasize whenever possible is that when you find a subject matter, there is a REALLY good chance that you are not the first one to approach it. A previous artist, whether we know of them or not, had many of the same interests. The dutch painter Bruegel was an earlier painter of peasants. His paintings from the 1500’s were widely known throughout all of Europe. Millet did what many of us would hope to do in a lifetime. He understood the work of Bruegel’s peasant scenes and dutch landscapes and dove deeper into the peasant’s lives creating a new body of work that would influence subsequent generations of artists and photographers.
The life of an 19th century peasant was nothing desirable. It was a hard life of tilling rough soil, wrought with obstacles, all for little money and no hope of ever leaving their place as a farm hand. Even within a free society of post Revolution France, the fields were not filled with people clamoring for the opportunity to work sixteen hour days in the dirt.
While more artists were spending their days in the beautiful Fontainbleau forest, Millet turned one hundred and eighty degrees and marched for the peasants. Its curious to look at his motivations for depicting workers of the day instead of the Princes and Generals who were the normal subjects of great painters. Instead of men of rank, Millet choose Butter Churners, Sowers, Wool Spinners, and Harvesters as the heroes of his scenes.
Do his motivations seem like they might have a connection to photographers like Sebastiao Salgado’s Workers, Werner Bischoff’s Peruvians or Steve McCurry’s Fishermen? As far as I can see, the focus on the working communities of any country can be traced back to the success of Millet’s work.
“That he should have lavished so much care
on such humble objects, little regarded
at that time, can only mean that Millet
loved them and respected them for
their own sake.”
The Anatomy of Work
Let’s peer inside the dark farm house to understand what might have caught Millet’s attention about french Peasants for his paintings. He was known for accurately capturing the arm gestures of a baker versus a coppersmith. He paid close attention to the differences between peasants jobs. There was nothing lazy about his eye or his approach. By the end of his life, he had mastered his subject matter, something we should all pursue.
“The remarkable thing about Millet’s most ambitious works is the balance he achieves between accurate observation and epic transfiguration. His successful fusion of those two qualities became apparent for the first time in “Harvesters Resting” which began as “Ruth and Boaz” - apparent in their superb flow and movement of the reclining louts showing off their Florentine forms.” (-Théophile Gautier) and also the admirable “Gleaners” whose gestures and rhythms come directly from Greek Sculpture. It was not without advantage that Millet kept some plaster casts of the Parthenon Sculptures in his Barbizon Studio. – Ernst Chesneau
Inside of the double quote from Gautier and Chesneau we can understand that Millet saw the actions of these nameless peasants sharing the DNA of the greatest sculptures from Antiquity. In a true effort of democracy Millet elevated the farmer from a dirty peasant hand to a heroic embodiment of any virtue worthy of a Greek God. Concepts like Strength, Fortitude, Resiliency and Youth are all present in the bodies of Millet’s subjects.
The question for us as photographers or artists, is “What happens when we see a connection with our subject matter and the past? What can this do for us?” For starters, it gives us a set of visual references to study. The sheer power of the stances adopted by a young Apollo or Venus might be present in the living subjects before our lenses or notepads.
We need to have some sense of tradition to see why great sculptors chose to immortalize a figure in a certain pose. Left arm forward, right arm back…these gestures are not arbitrary, they all align with design traditions which are thousands of years old. There are movements which ring more true and powerful than others. I believe that when you look at a a series of Millet’s and then flip through a National Geographic magazine, you cannot help but see the connection of 19th century painting to 21st century photography. Even if the photographer, however good or bad they may be, never saw Millet, they would have inadvertently been exposed to his legacy through other artists. The subject matter of master artists echoes the past, with such immediacy that it cannot be ignored. And I bet as you pick up those old magazines and compare them with Millet’s paintings, one idea will become painfully obvious. Many photographers miss the opportunities to create Great work, because they never studied the painting traditions that preceded their work. Its an easy trap to avoid.
Dead artists speak to you
There have been a few times I have mentioned that when you study the design of an artist it will feel like they are speaking to you. Now if you walk into a museum and ALL the paintings are talking to you, there may be a good psychologist awaiting your phone call. But in all seriousness, not every artist’s work will speak to you. And at different points in your life, one artist may speak louder than another. For Millet he found an intense connection with Michelangelo. When Théophile Silvestre was nominating Millet for the Légion d’Honneur to Napolean III, he referred to him as the “Michelangelo of Peasants.”
“When Millet saw a drawing of Michelangelo’s of a man in a dead faint: “I shared the suffering of that prostrate body and those very limbs. I realized that the artist who had drawn that was capable of personifying all the good and evil of mankind in a single figure. I had already seen in Cherbourg some mediocre prints after Michelangelo, but here I could feel the heart beat and hear the voice of the artist who really haunted me all my life.”
What are they saying
Where do we look for the answers to our questions? Since we can no longer sit next to Millet and have a conversation how can we bring his work to life?
Here are some places to look:
1. Writings. This one sounds obvious enough, but not enough people read the writings of artists. If you like Millet or Rembrandt read a book on them, don’t just look at the pictures. When Millet speaks about the italian artists Rosso Fiorentino or Primataccio, who both left Italy to paint in the French courts, he says:
“An art of a decadent period, it is true…
but what a power of creation! And how
reminiscent their hearty bluntness is
the art of early times! One could
look for hours at the works of
these good natured giants.”
Millet is revealing who influenced his work. If he appeals to you, then its best to understand what tools he acquired from other artists along the way. The biggest mistake I hear on forums and other websites are photographers who say they don’t look at anyones work. This is a colossal mistake and there is an important distinction to be made here. While you are actually working or in the middle of a project, I agree, looking at other artists can prove to be problematic. But in your early years or between projects drink up the works of other artists like they were going to disappear tomorrow. The lessons are so rich with information that your images will catapult themselves forward.
2. Drawings. Impressionist Camille Pissaro said of Millet’s work,”…they (the public) do not realize that his drawings are one hundred times better than his paintings, which have really dated.”
Not everyone loved Millet’s paintings, in fact he died fairly broke and with little appreciation. But if you want to understand how an artist thinks, forget about their final works. Study their drawings. Look at the elements they emphasize and which bits fade into the whiteness of the paper. When we study Millet, we can see that he is principally concerned with generalizing a pose, getting it to read against the background and capturing accurate details about the peasant’s life. We can look at a painting like “The Sower” to see how he refines the MOST expressive pose of a man throwing seeds on the field. The subject has his right leg forward, his left leg back, his left arm forward and right arm back. This type of contrapposto is lifted directly from Michelangelo because it gives a power to the Sower’s gesture. We can feel the movement.
3. Patterns. My feeling is that real artists do not worry about style. They focus on idioms. What’s an idiom? Its a visual grammar that is particular to a theme. Millet could be described as working in a peasant idiom. Since his subject was varied, but unchanging for the later part of his life, he freely explored the many facets of peasant life. He found techniques for dealing with the color palate, activities, and nuances of farm life that might not work in an idiom of seascape paintings.
Without any effort, his paintings develop their own style, but I hardly imagine Millet sitting at his dining room table lamenting his next stylistic choice. Style, as far as I am concerned, is the concern of capricious marketers most concentrated in the fashion world. As an artist, if you do anything with a considerable amount of thought, training and intention you can’t help but develop a style. And your style will be profoundly more rich than the fashionistas who are trying to decide if “Black is the new black or white is the new black.” Let them self destruct on their own accord.
When we look at Millet and understand his peasant idiom, we can see him playing with the format of the canvas, the vertical and horizontal orientations of the figures which sometimes work better than others. He devotes considerable time to the “tools of the farm trades”, the positions of workers in action, and the quality of light in the fields. Its great to see his work together in a book, because the progressions and experiments read more clearly than they might in a museum. Unless a museum is mounting a 100 piece show, a book is an easier place to study any artist’s work. Then when you go back to the museum the work will scream at you.
The Magnum Connection
So how did an provincial painter influence the photographers at Magnum Photo and National Geographic? One name…Henrì Cartier-Bresson. The work of Millet made an impact on Cartier-Bresson and he studied his paintings and drawings. Then after Cartier-Bresson started Magnum and brought in younger photographers like Werner Bischoff, Josef Koudelka, Constantin Manos, Salgado, McCurry just to name a few…they were all exposed to Cartier-Bresson’s work and by default the influence of Millet. Now some photographers actually come from fine art backgrounds, but more and more the classical art education is dying. Many photographers have college degrees in literature or history. They would have never encountered the drawing education that Cartier-Bresson had as a youth. As you look through the work of prominent photographers keep Millet in mind. You will be amazed at how often his images surface in the work of other artists.
On our next trip
When you take your next trip, whether it is by car, by plane or by boat, don’t forget Millet. Ask yourself what details he might have considered were worthy of a sketch? Remember that all objects are not equal and some will work better in a photograph than others. Art making is challenging enough, so we would like to hedge our bets by understanding the artists who preceded us and focusing attention on subjects which will read in the final image.
Since we are talking about travel, why not share where you next trip will be to open a dialogue about travel? I would like to hear where you are going next. Nothing fills the air with more excitement than a trip to the airport and a passport stamp. And if you would like to follow my travels “friend me” on Facebook.
References for this article came from:
“Jean Francois Millet.” André Fermigier. Rizzoli International Publications, 1977.
Additional images provided via http://www.jeanmillet.org/
In the mean time…Enjoy!