The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Jean François Millet, 1814-1874

Nationality: French
Date of Birth: 1814.10.04
Place of Birth: Gruchy
Date of Death: 1874.01.20
Place of Death: Barbizon


Jean François Millet was an artist. He was born into a prosperous peasant family from Normandy. He married Pauline-Virginie Ono but she died in 1844. He subsequently married Catherine Lemaire.


Millet studied with a local portrait painter Bon Du Mouchel and in Cherbourg under Lucien-Théophile Langlois, a pupil of Antoine-Jean Gros, as well as in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Paul Delaroche. In 1839 he won the Prix de Rome. In 1840 he was back in Cherbourg but moved to Paris the following year. During this time he made his name as a painter of pastoral subjects, portraits and nudes. Around 1848 he became acquainted with the Barbizon artists, most notably Théodore Rousseau, and in 1849 he moved to Barbizon. There he developed his monumental rural genre scenes, which showed a dual concern for contemporary social and political issues, as well as for artistic tradition, particularly the work of Michelangelo and Nicolas Poussin (see The Gleaners, 1857, Musée d'Orsay, Paris).

In May 1863 Henri Fantin-Latour wrote to JW concerning the Paris Salon, at which JW was exhibiting some etchings, saying that the paintings of Millet, along with those of Corot and Rousseau, were the best on view (#01079). In May 1869 JW described Millet to George A. Lucas as an artist 'worth knowing' (#09190). Indeed, Millet's work came to be appreciated by a number of avant-garde artists, including Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh. Interestingly, Millet's nocturnal scenes, e.g. Twilight (pastel, ca 1859-63; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) prefigure JW's Nocturnes of the 1870s. JW also shared with Millet an interest in etching and pastel drawing. Millet, who probably began etching around 1855, was technically skillful but for him the medium was never central to his artistic programme (see Woman Churning Butter, 1855-56). From 1865 Millet's preferred medium was pastel, and these works, primarily landscapes, were, like his etchings, technically innovative.

However, Millet's painting practice was traditional. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he produced careful preparatory studies for every painting.

During the 1860s he continued to exhibit peasant subjects, and achieved critical success. In 1867 a retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The following year he was awarded the Légion d'honneur.


Wheelwright, E., 'Personal Recollections of Jean-François Millet', Atlantic Monthly, vol. 38, September 1876, pp. 257-76; Cartwright, J., Jean-François Millet: His Life and Letters, London, 1896; Thompson, A., Millet and the Barbizon School, London, 1903; Herbert, R., Jean-François Millet, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, 1975; McPherson, Heather, 'Jean François Millet', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 24 January 2003).