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Friday, March 16, 2012

Jean-Francois Millet

A Snow Day, 1959, Jim Lane,
my first oil painting.
I had a deprived childhood. Not physically deprived. We were never wealthy; but we were never hungry either. No, my deprivation was cultural. I never visited an art museum until I was an adult in college. Growing up, I recall admiring the work of a hack landscape artist named Kelly who painted in oils on dinner plates. I'll never forget being totally enraptured, watching another hack paint dozens of formula landscapes on Masonite which he sold for twenty to thirty dollars each at the Morgan County Fair. He made it look so easy. My own first paintings were in imitation of these. I was around fourteen. My first set of oil paints was a Christmas gift. I recall sitting on the back porch steps in winter painting a tiny snow scene of my school. It was probably the first and only time I ever painted on location (above).  Even in reproductions, I never saw much great art. But a couple do stick in my mind. Three peasants, bent over in a field, picking up leftover wheat, one grain at a time, also a similar print by the same artist, a farmer and his wife, at twilight, pausing to say a prayer as they worked late in the fields.

The Gleaners, 1857, Jean-Francois Millet
I didn't know the artist at the time. His name was Jean-Francois Millet. The paintings, of course, were his unforgettable The Gleaners (above) and his even more moving, The Angelus (below). They both hung in our church. Stockport, Ohio, was a small, farming community. It was only natural that Millet's agrarian Realism should strike a knowing chord with my religious ancestors. Millet, though French, would have felt right at home there. He came from a small town himself, the hamlet of Gruchy, some ten miles west of Cherbourg on the Northwest Normandy coast of France. It was there he was born in 1814. His father, though quite talented as a painter, made his living as a farmer. As a child, his son exhibited an undeniable talent at drawing. The boy's education was given over to the parish priest who taught him Latin, Greek, and a love of the Bible and classic literature. His art training began in Cherbourg. Then, in 1838, he moved on to Paris to become a student of Paul Delaroche. Later he was able to travel to Italy where he became a great admirer of Poussin and Fra Angelico.

The Angelus, 1859, Jean-Francois Millet
Perhaps it was fortunate Millet was born a peasant because as an artist, he and his family knew little besides poverty most of their lives. He and his second wife had nine children. And though he had some early, modest success in the 1848 Salon with one of his first peasant paintings, The Winnower (now lost), for the next twenty years he struggled desperately just to feed his family. Yet these years were some of the most productive and creative years of his entire life. It was during this period he did his most important work. In 1849, he took his family to Barbizon, on the edge of the Forests of Fountainbleu for the summer. He ended up staying the rest of his life--twenty-seven years. It was there he came to be noticed by collectors, two Bostonians traveling in France who were, in the years to come, to provide a modicum of financial stability in his life. It was in Barbizon, in 1857 he painted The Gleaners and in 1859, The Angelus. Millet died in 1875. Twenty-four years later, the man who purchased The Angelus from Millet for 2,200 francs also died. The painting gained a degree of fame when it sold at auction for the then astounding price of 553,000 francs; which probably accounts for why a small print of it came to hang in a small village church in Southeastern Ohio, some fifty years later.

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