Examining Millet’s Influence on a Generation of Artists To Come

April 27, 2020

The first couple of decades of the 19th century were still quite influenced by the philosophical domains of the Age of Reason. However, such rationality gradually started changing in the field of arts with the development of Romanticism, an art movement inspired by dreamscapes, medieval ruins, isolation and in some cases the macabre. Although it dominated the art currents in Europe and the United States for almost a century, Romanticism had a rivaling tendency called Realism that appeared around the 1850s.

The Realists were interested in depicting contemporary people and topics in an earnest and respectful manner which was quite the opposite of the exaggerated and dramatic sensibility found on the paintings by the Romanticists. While some artists devotedly presented scenes of everyday life in urban environments, the others withdrew to the countryside and started depicting peasants at work in the surrounding fields.

One particular group of painters called the Barbizon school, active from 1830 through 1870, gradually became immensely popular and made a big impact on the following generation of artists. Inspired by the works of an English painter John Constable, the Barbizons developed a specific painterly style characterized by loose brushwork, tonal qualities, and softness of form.

The founding member of the Barbizon school was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) whose production, as the art history showed, came to special prominence for his unique and in some way pioneering imagery of landscapes, nudes, and rural environments. By the late 19th century, Millet became a renowned modern painter whose works made influenced masters to come across the globe from Russia to America.

To revisit his extraordinary artistic practice and rightfully articulate Millet’s spot in art history, The Saint Louis Art Museum decided to organize an exhibition called Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí.

Left Jean-Francois Millet - Self-Portrait Right Jean-Francois Millet - The Sower
Left: Jean-François Millet - Self-Portrait, 1840–1841. Oil on canvas, 25 x 18 1/2 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution / Right: Jean-François Millet - The Sower, after 1850. Oil on canvas; 41 1/2 x 33 3/4 inches; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: 19th Century or Earlier Painting Purchase Fund and with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel B. Casey and Mr. and Mrs. George L. Craig Jr.

Surveying Millet’s Influence On Other Artists

For this particular occasion, the curators Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Maite van Dijk, senior curator at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam managed to gather an impressive selection of loans coming from some of the greatest museums on the world including the works by Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Giovanni Segantini, Winslow Homer, Natalia Gonchareva, Paula Modersohn-Becke, Edvard Munch and Salvador Dalí - all of them artists who were very much inspired by Millet's domains.

Inside the exhibition - Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí

The Selected Works

The installment is mostly centered on representations of rural labor to which Millet was very committed: the reaper, the sower, and the gleaner. These paintings reflect the artist’s social concern for the rural poor as well as a metaphor of the circle of life (the seasonal works).

Vincent van Gogh was the artist whose painting was profoundly influenced by Millet’s work (to such an extent that he even called him father Millet). Therefore, among the displayed artifacts are few iconic Van Gogh paintings, including The Sower and Starry Night loaned from Musée d’Orsay.

Another artist represented in the show is American Winslow Homer, who translated Millet’s imagery through the lens of the race on his iconic canvas The Bright Side.

On display is also an important group of Millet’s works on paper that have influenced artists such as Georges Seurat, as well as his rarely known nudes that impacted Edgar Degas.

An important aspect of the installment is a selection of Millet’s landscape paintings made by the artist in the last decade of his life. His colorful marine imagery is displayed in parallel with the one by Monet, who was himself a huge admirer of the sea. The highlight of this section is Spring, an astonishing masterpiece that encapsulates Millet’s ability to depict light from a passing rainbow; this particular painting is related to imagery by the American George Inness.

The final section is centered on one of Millet’s best-known paintings, the national symbol of France and widely celebrated Angelus. Alongside this masterpiece on display are related works by artists such as Natalia Goncharova, Edvard Munch, as well as a couple of paintings made by Dali who was mesmerized by Millet’s Angelus.

Winslow Homer - The Bright Side
Winslow Homer - The Bright Side, 1865. Oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 17 inches. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd

Millet and Modern Art Exhibition at The SLAM

Millet and Modern Art is jointly organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum stated:

This groundbreaking exhibition rediscovers Millet’s critical role in the birth and development of modern art. It will be a visually stunning treat for our visitors and it is an important contribution to art historical scholarship.

An extensively illustrated catalog edited by the curators accompanies the exhibition.

The Saint Louis Art Museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 pandemic, but the readers can hear the audio guide of the Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí exhibition by visiting this link.

Featured images: Jean-François Millet - Haystacks: Autumn, c.1874. Oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 43 3/8 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lillian S. Timken, 1959; Vincent van Gogh - The Sower, 1888. Oil on canvas; 25 1/4 x 31 5/8 inches. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands 2020.37; © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, Photo: Rik Klein Gotink, Harderwijk; Natalia Goncharova - Planting Potatoes, 1909. All images courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum.

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