Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was a French painter who is famed for his depictions of peasant life. He was a leading figure in the Barbizon School, a school of painting that was very influential in bringing Realism to landscape painting in France. The school was named after the village of Barbizon, where Millet arrived in 1849 and would spend most of the rest of his life. Another leader, Théodore Rousseau, had also arrived here in 1846, and the pair attracted many other artists who painted the landscapes and animals of the area.
Jean-François Millet is best known for four paintings: Gleaners, The Angelus, The Sower, and Man with a Hoe, but his body of work is full of plenty more masterful compositions that highlight both the nobility and toil of rural France.
Here’s our selection of ten of the best Millet paintings:
The Winnower (c.1847-48)
The Winnower was one of Jean-François Millet’s first paintings of rural labour, and depicts a peasant winnowing. This was the practice of removing chaff (the casings of grain seeds and other unwanted plant material) from harvested grain. The peasant is using a special winnowing fan for this; these have no lip at the front end, meaning that with the correct shaking action, the chaff can be moved to this end and tipped out over the edge. Millet has recorded this task with great accuracy, showing the winnower holding the fan against his thigh, ready to lift it with his knee and shake it again. The fan is titled upwards slightly, and from its far end a golden cloud of chaff is rising into the air from the winnower’s shaking a moment ago.
This painting was exhibited at the unjuried Salon of 1848, the year of the revolution in France that resulted in the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy that had been led by the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe. Millet himself did not actively participate in this revolution, and may have started this painting as early as late 1846. Nevertheless, many critics have seen The Winnower as Millet’s display of support, or at least sympathy, towards the rural workers whose plight was one factor in the 1848 revolution. Following its exhibition, the painting was purchased by Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the newly appointed Minister of Interior in the Second Republic.
The critics were mostly positive towards The Winnower. However, Théophile Gautier was notably critical of Millet’s thick application of paint, which he stated had been “trowel(ed)” onto the canvas. This handling was no doubt partly because Millet had already painted on this canvas, not yet being able to afford as many canvases as he needed. Underneath the final painting is a sequence of human limbs: one or two legs, a forearm, a wrist, and a clenched hand. These body parts have never been definitively linked to another of his works and were most likely painted as part of his academic training. Millet later completed a variation of this work that is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.
The Sower (1850)
The Sower is often noted for Millet’s ennobling of the peasant subject, which attracted both praise and derision. Here, Millet has portrayed the lone sower with a robust physique and movement that is reminiscent of iconic Western artworks, such as the sculptures by famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo. As the worker strides purposefully across the Normandy earth, the counter-balanced turns of his thighs and torso draw attention to his muscular build, giving him an heroic quality.
However, the sower is equally as mysterious. Millet has used a very strong chiaroscuro in his painting, with the sower’s face largely hidden in shadow as he crosses the terrain alone. Combined with the large scale that the sower has been painted on, his dominance of the canvas, the sloping horizon, the crows circling the background, and our low-angle viewpoint, the piece also has something of an eerie quality to it. Indeed, many critics saw Millet’s sower as a menacing and incendiary figure, and believed the artist was suggesting at future revolution with his painting. Millet was certainly shocked at such a strong reaction, and always maintained his work did not have political implications.
Millet had great influence on Vincent van Gogh, and The Sower in particular was a source of great inspiration for the iconic Post-Impressionist. Van Gogh made dozens of copies of The Sower and in 1888, painted his own modern version of it using a warmer colour palette than Millet.
Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (1853)
For this painting, Jean-François Millet has drawn on the story of Ruth and Boaz in the Old Testament. Ruth was a poor widow who loyally supported her mother-in-law Naomi by gleaning (collecting grain from the fields that had not been gathered by the harvesters). As she gleaned, the landowner Boaz fell in love with her, admiring her loyalty to Naomi, her beauty, and her diligence. He invited her to join the harvesters during their midday meal – which Millet has depicted here – and eventually he wed her.
However, Millet subverted both the Biblical episode and his predecessors’ depictions of it. Notably, his Boaz is not a landowner, but is instead portrayed (through his clothing) as a 19th century métayer – a sharecropper who oversaw the land of a wealthy landowner. (In the 1850s, landowners were often absent from their farms and more concerned with their own financial profit than the welfare and livelihoods of their employees.) By doing this, Millet has chosen to not portray the relationship between a poor woman and a rich man, but rather that between two members of different working classes.
As a result, many critics have seen Harvesters Resting as Millet’s argument for co-operation between the poorest individuals in rural France (like Millet’s Ruth) and those in the class directly above them (like his Boaz). Such an alliance could potentially have been directed against the absent landowners of Millet’s time.
The painting was poorly received by Parisian critics after its exhibition at the 1853 Salon. However, they expressed their objections in terms of the aesthetics of the painting, declaring their distaste towards Millet’s inelegant portrayal of the peasants as coarse and common – such a rendition went against traditional academic rural genre paintings of idyllic pastoral scenes.
This painting depicts three female gleaners who are considered to be among the most widely recognisable figures in Western art. Millet’s women have also come to be the personification of Work in Western artistic imagination, which is surely in no small part down to him masterfully capturing the plight of these workers on the canvas. Notably, Millet has painted the woman furthest to the right apparently about to bend back down after straightening up to rest her back, allowing him to underpin the physical strain of gleaning.
He has also contrasted the obvious poverty of these women with the plentiful harvest in the background. Whilst the three figures are adding single stalks of wheat to the pitiful bunches they are holding in one hand, workers in the background are creating sheaves and towering haystacks. Similarly, Millet has included what appears to be a steward on horseback on the right hand side of the canvas. This steward would have overlooked work on the land and also ensured that the gleaners were following the necessary rules. In this role, he would have been a representative of a (wealthy) landowner, meaning that Millet’s inclusion of him creates another juxtaposition between need and bounty.
Despite their destitution, Millet has given the gleaners a sober and dignified rendition: the light from the setting sun gives them a sculptural form, illuminating more clearly their necks, hands, shoulders and backs, and brightening the colours of their clothes. Although there is no Biblical tale being depicted here, we can clearly see Millet’s belief in the virtue and piety inherent in physical labour, which is perhaps provides some explanation to why he spent ten years working on the theme of gleaners before completing this painting.
The Angelus (1858)
Doubtlessly the most famous painting by Jean-François Millet, this compositon depicts two peasants pausing during their work to recite the Angelus, a prayer that commemorates the Annunciation. It used to be recited three times a day when church bells rang to let parishioners know that they should down their tools and pray. For each invocation, three tolls rang, and for the concluding prayer, nine tolls.
In 1865, Millet stated that this painting was inspired by his own experiences of pausing for the Angelus. When he worked the land as a child, his grandmother would make sure that everybody stopped their task at the ringing of Angelus bells to say the prayer. In this painting, the peasants have paused their potato digging, which is indicated by the potato fork stuck into the ground, the basket of potatoes at the woman’s feet, and the wheelbarrow of empty sacks behind her.
Despite the small size of the painting (66 x 55.5cm), it expresses a feeling of deep contemplation, and the religious dignity that Millet saw at the heart of rural work in France. The peasants have both bowed their heads in prayer, the man holding his cap and the woman clasping her hands against her chest. Against the high horizon, they seem like monumental figures, backlit by the setting sun that is just bright enough to illuminate the clouds and allow the church spire and flying birds to be discerned in the background.
In 1889, fourteen years after Millet’s death, The Angelus was sold for 553,000 francs, which at the time was the largest sum ever paid for a piece of modern art. It was purchased again the following year for 750,000 francs, which caused something of a scandal, especially since Millet had lived in poverty for much of his life, his surviving family were also very poor, and he himself had sold The Angelus for only 1000 francs in 1860. An international debate ensued about the commercialisation of artwork, and a law in France was subsequently introduced that entitled an artist or their surviving family to a share of any resale value.
Man with a Hoe (1860-62)
Man with a Hoe sparked a great deal of controversy upon its exhibition at the 1863 Salon. Many critics denounced Millet’s depiction of this peasant as “ugly” and “degraded”, stating that it was an insult to the peasantry. Certainly, the worker has been painted with an almost troglodytic appearance: the back of his cranium is pointed, he has barely any forehead, his mouth is agape, his tool resembles a pre-historic weapon, he is hunched over, and physically he is very big.
However, he is also a man exhausted from his work of turning the rocky ground, which would have also been full of thistles and weeds, into a fertile field. His clothes are coarse and dirty, he is leaning upon his hoe for a moment’s respite, and is obviously breathing quite heavily. More than this, the man also seems detached and alienated from his work, unlike Millet’s previous sower and gleaners, who despite their difficult work, seem to have something of a connection with the land. This man would almost certainly have been a hired labourer who ranked only just above gleaners in the rural social hierarchy.
Like a lot of Millet’s paintings, Man with a Hoe was seen as a political statement by many observers, who interpreted it as socialist protest against the hardship of the peasantry. However, Millet declared that he was not a socialist or an agitator, and in a letter to the French art historian Alfred Sensier, he defended his supposedly “brutish” portrayal of the peasant. He wrote, “There are those who tell me that I deny the charms of the country. I find much more than charms there; I find infinite splendour… But I see as well, in the plain, the steaming horses at work, and in a rocky place, a man with a broken back, whose han! (panting) has been heard since morning, and who tries to straighten himself upright a moment to breathe.”
Indeed, when the Paris Commune, a radical socialist uprising, broke out a decade later, Millet refused to be associated with it or its Federation of Artists.
Potato Planters (c. 1861)
In this rural scene, Jean-François Millet has depicted a peasant couple planting potatoes for themselves. At this time, potatoes were still generally considered to be animal fodder, and unfit for human consumption. However, as Millet would have been well aware, potatoes were the main starch food in the diet of a lot of peasant families who were unable to afford bread. Millet was undoubtedly not of the opinion that growing and eating potatoes was in any way unfit or uncultured, and he defended the practice, writing “Why should the work of a potato planter be less interesting or less noble than any other activity?”.
In this scene, the husband and wife are shown working in unison to plant their vegetables, with the man walking moving slowly forwards and opening holes in the earth with his hoe, whilst his wife steps carefully backwards, dropping seed-potatoes in them. The landscape behind them is vast, and consists of the same fields depicted in Gleaners, which have now been left fallow. Right in the background, the distant village houses of Barbizon can just be discerned, but they are otherwise enveloped in the hazy, luminous countryside. Nevertheless, Millet has given his two peasants a solid modelling, emphasising the dignity of them and their work.
Resting in the shade of an apple tree is a donkey and a baby, who is sleeping in a pannier that would have been filled with potato-seeds and carried by the donkey. By including a husband, wife, baby, and a donkey in Potato Planters, Millet evokes the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and their child Jesus. And just like Millet’s peasant family, the Holy Family was a poor family that lived virtuously.
Shepherdess with her Flock (c.1863)
The shepherdess and her flock became a favourite theme of Millet during his career and was depicted by him in numerous other artworks, such as Shepherdess Seated on a Rock (1856) and Shepherdess Returning with her Flock (1874). During his younger years in Normandy, Millet had been used to seeing sheep and cows pasture unattended in smaller fields enclosed by hedgerows. However, in Barbizon, these livestock were often watched by young shepherdesses during the day whilst they grazed in wastelands that bordered large fields of wheat. These young women were tasked with ensuring that the animals didn’t wander off into sowed or planted fields, or eat lots of greenery from young shrubs and trees that wouldn’t be able to grow back.
With this painting, Millet pays homage to these young shepherdesses, who would have to watch over their flocks for hours upon hours without human company in all weathers. To keep themselves occupied, they would often knit, as the girl in this painting does. Millet also gives the shepherdess a noble and dignified portrayal in his paintings of them, breaking from many 18th century French playwrights and artists who had far too often represented them as promiscuous and wanton.
Exhibited at the 1864 Salon, Shepherdess with her Flock received great acclaim, winning Millet a first-class medal and popular success. The public, who had long been relatively unenthusiastic towards the artist’s painting of peasant plight and hard labour, were won over by this more idyllic and youthful scene of rural life. Indeed, Millet created a serene and near-pretty composition with his rendition of this young girl, alone with her dog and sheep in a vast landscape that stretches out unbroken to the horizon. Muted sunlight shines through the clouds onto this scene, reflecting on the backs of the sheep and harmonising the red, golden, blue, and green tones on the canvas.
Calling the Cows Home (c.1872)
This oil on panel painting depicts another everyday event in the countryside surrounding Barbizon that fascinated Jean-François Millet. That is, the local herdsman sounding his horn at twilight to call together the cattle that he looked after for those in Barbizon who owned cows but didn’t have the land for them to graze upon. This theme was well-known among Millet’s contemporaries, and had already been depicted by Millet’s fellow Barbizon School painter Théodore Rousseau in The Descent of the Cattle in the High Jura Mountains (1534-35), a painting that has since succumbed to chemical degradation.
In Calling the Cows Home, Millet has attempted to capture the splendour of the of the Plain of Chaillay in the half-light of the sunset. Indeed, his focus in the painting seems to be on the fading orange light and the mystical calm that it brought with it, rather than the detail of the figures and landscape. The forms of the cowherd, cattle, and landscape have been loosely blocked-in, and the orange-gold colour used for the sky, which Millet initially covered the entire canvas with, shows through them. The artist has also left visible the drawn outlines and the odd hatchings on the canvas. He did describe this painting as a “sketch”, but the fact that he signed it indicates that he considered it to be a finished piece.
Before completing this painting, Millet had produced three known similar competitions: a drawing that was dated to about 1854-57 but was lost after its publication in 1902, a pastel dated to about 1866, and a smaller oil on panel painting dated to the late 1850s that was unknown to art historians until its recent discovery. It had stayed off the art market for over 125 years in the art collection on an American family, and was sold in 2017 at a Sotheby’s auction for $627,000.
Bird Nesters (1874)
Finished in 1874, Bird Nesters, also known as Hunting Birds at Night, was one of the last paintings completed by Millet before his death in 1875. By simply looking at the painting, it is hard to discern what is going on. However, from the American painter William Low, who visited Millet in 1873-74, we later learned (in McClure’s Magazine, May 1896) that the scene shown in Bird Nesters was taken from Millet’s childhood memories. Millet had spoken to Low about how he would hunt wild pigeons with the other peasants at night in Normandy, where he had lived as a boy. They would use torches to blind the pigeons, which were then clubbed out of the sky by the older peasants before the younger peasants gathered the fallen birds into sacks.
Such a frantic and violent scene contrasts to the earlier scenes of rural life that Millet painted, which were often monotonous and still. There is an almost primitive frenzy to the painting as two of the four peasants swing their clubs in the swirl of light emitted by the torch held by the man with his back to us, whilst the other pair scramble on the ground for the injured birds. This effect is intensified by Millet’s use of more loose and gestural brushwork. It’s certainly brutal, but there’s also an emotional impact in Millet’s rendition of the four peasants in a torchlit communal hunt, which would have prodivded them with one of the few sources of meat they had in their diet.
Millet died the following year in January, having earlier that year married his wife Catherine in accordance with the rites of the church (they had previously wed in a common-law ceremony in 1853). He had been ailing for a while, and perhaps as he approached his own death, he chose to depict a scene showing its inevitability with Bird Nesters, placing into conflict two of his work’s archetypes: the peaceful bird and the diligent peasant.