Jean-François Millet was a French artist and one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. Millet is noted for his paintings of peasant farmers and can be categorized as part of the Realism art movement. Toward the end of his career he became increasingly interested in painting pure landscapes. He is known best for his oil paintings but is also noted for his pastels, conte crayon drawings, and etchings.
Millet was the first child of Jean-Louis-Nicolas and Aimée-Henriette-Adélaïde Henry Millet, members of the farming community in the village of Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague, Normandy, close to the coast. Under the guidance of two village priests—one of them was vicar Jean Lebrisseux—Millet acquired a knowledge of Latin and modern authors. But soon he had to help his father with the farm-work; because Millet was the eldest of the sons. So all the farmer's work was familiar to him: to mow, make hay, bind the sheaves, thresh, winnow, spread manure, plow, sow, etc. All these motifs returned in his later art.
In 1833 his father sent him to Cherbourg to study with a portrait painter named Bon Du Mouchel. By 1835 he was studying with Théophile Langlois de Chèvreville, a pupil of Baron Gros, in Cherbourg. A stipend provided by Langlois and others enabled Millet to move to Paris in 1837, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts with Paul Delaroche. In 1839 his scholarship was terminated, and his first submission to the Salon, Saint Anne Instructing the Virgin, was rejected by the jury.
After his first painting, a portrait, was accepted at the Salon of 1840, Millet returned to Cherbourg to begin a career as a portrait painter. However, the following year he married Pauline-Virginie Ono, and they moved to Paris. After rejections at the Salon of 1843 and Pauline's death by consumption in April 1844, Millet returned again to Cherbourg. In 1845 Millet moved to Le Havre with Catherine Lemaire, whom he married in a civil ceremony in 1853; they had nine children and remained together for the rest of Millet's life. In Le Havre he painted portraits and small genre pieces for several months, before moving back to Paris.
It was in Paris in the middle 1840s that Millet befriended Constant Troyon, Narcisse Diaz, Charles Jacque, and Théodore Rousseau, artists who, like Millet, became associated with the Barbizon school; Honoré Daumier, whose figure draftsmanship influenced Millet's subsequent rendering of peasant subjects; and fr:Alfred Sensier, a government bureaucrat who became a lifelong supporter and eventually the artist's biographer. In 1847 his first Salon success came with the exhibition of a painting Oedipus Taken down from the Tree, and in 1848 his Winnower was bought by the government.
The Captivity of the Jews in Babylon, Millet's most ambitious work at the time, was unveiled at the Salon of 1848, but was scorned by art critics and the public alike. The painting eventually disappeared shortly thereafter, leading historians to believe that Millet destroyed it. In 1984, scientists at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston x-rayed Millet's 1870 painting The Young Shepherdess looking for minor changes, and discovered that it was painted over Captivity. It is now believed that Millet reused the canvas when materials were in short supply during the Franco-Prussian War.
In 1849, Millet painted Harvesters, a commission for the state. In the Salon of that year, he exhibited Shepherdess Sitting at the Edge of the Forest, a very small oil painting which marked a turning away from previous idealized pastoral subjects, in favor of a more realistic and personal approach. In June of that year, he settled in Barbizon with Catherine and their children.
In 1850 Millet entered into an arrangement with Sensier, who provided the artist with materials and money in return for drawings and paintings, while Millet simultaneously was free to continue selling work to other buyers as well. At that year's Salon, he exhibited Haymakers and The Sower, his first major masterpiece and the earliest of the iconic trio of paintings that included The Gleaners and The Angelus.
From 1850 to 1853, Millet worked on Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz), a painting he considered his most important, and on which he worked the longest. Conceived to rival his heroes Michelangelo and Poussin, it was also the painting that marked his transition from the depiction of symbolic imagery of peasant life to that of contemporary social conditions. It was the only painting he ever dated, and was the first work to garner him official recognition, a second-class medal at the 1853 salon.
In the mid-1850s, Millet produced a small number of etchings of peasant subjects, such as Man with a Wheelbarrow (1855) and Woman Carding Wool (1855–1857).
The Gleaners is one of the most well known of Millet's paintings. While Millet was walking the fields around Barbizon, one theme returned to his pencil and brush for seven years—gleaning—the centuries-old right of poor women and children to remove the bits of grain left in the fields following the harvest. He found the theme an eternal one, linked to stories from the Old Testament. In 1857, he submitted the painting The Gleaners to the Salon to an unenthusiastic, even hostile, public.
Despite mixed reviews of the paintings he exhibited at the Salon, Millet's reputation and success grew through the 1860s. At the beginning of the decade, he contracted to paint 25 works in return for a monthly stipend for the next three years and in 1865, another patron, Emile Gavet, began commissioning pastels for a collection that eventually included 90 works. In 1867, the Exposition Universelle hosted a major showing of his work, with the Gleaners, Angelus, and Potato Planters among the paintings exhibited. The following year, Frédéric Hartmann commissioned Four Seasons for 25,000 francs, and Millet was named Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.
In 1870, Millet was elected to the Salon jury. Later that year, he and his family fled the Franco-Prussian War, moving to Cherbourg and Gréville, and did not return to Barbizon until late in 1871. His last years were marked by financial success and increased official recognition, but he was unable to fulfill government commissions due to failing health. On January 3, 1875, he married Catherine in a religious ceremony. Millet died on January 20, 1875.