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Jean Francois Millet
by Estelle M. Hurll
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When everything which could be said for or against the picture had been exhausted on the other side of the Atlantic, the picture was brought to this country and finally to the State of California. Here the discussion began all over again. There were those who were so impressed by the unpleasant character of the subject that they could not find words strong enough to express their horror. The Man with the Hoe was called "a monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched," a "dread" and "terrible" shape, "a thing that grieves not and that never hopes," a "brother to the ox," and many other things which would have surprised and grieved Millet.

Of course, any one to whom the pathos of the subject itself appeals so strongly can have little thought for the artistic qualities of the picture. So Edwin Markham, the writer of the poem from which these expressions are quoted, lets the subject lead him on into an impassioned protest against "the degradation of labor,—the oppression of man by man,"—all of which has nothing to do with the picture.

Millet was not one to care at all for what he called "pretty" subjects, as we have already seen in studying the picture of the Milkmaid. "He felt that only by giving to his figures the expression and character which belonged to their condition could he obey the laws of beauty in art, for he knew that a work of art is beautiful only when it is homogeneous."[1]

This was the theory which he put into practice in the Man with the Hoe, and one who understands well both his theories and his art sums up the great painting in these words: "The noble proportions of the figure alone would give this work a place among the greater artistic conceptions of all time, while the severe and simple pathos of this moment of respite in the interminable earth struggle, invests it with a sublimity which belongs to eternal things alone." [2]

[Footnote 1: Pierre Millet in the Century.]

[Footnote 2: Henry Naegely.]



XVI

THE PORTRAIT OF MILLET

In studying the works of any great painter many questions naturally arise as to the personality of the man himself and the influences which shaped his life. Some such questions have already been answered as we have examined these fifteen pictures by Millet. Jean Francois Millet, we have learned, was of peasant parentage and spent the greater part of his life in the country. His pious Norman ancestors bequeathed him a rich heritage of strong and serious traits. From them, too, he drew that patience and perseverance which helped him to overcome so many obstacles in his career.

In the surroundings of his childhood he saw no pictures and heard nothing of art or artists. Yet at a very early age he showed a remarkable talent for drawing. His artistic temperament was inherited from his father, who was a great lover of music and of everything beautiful. "Look," he sometimes said, plucking a blade of grass and showing it to his little boy, "how beautiful this is." His grandmother, too, had a true poetic vein in her nature. She would come to the child's bedside in the morning, calling, "Wake up, my little Francois, you don't know how long the birds have been singing the glory of God." In such a family the youth's gifts were readily recognized, and he was sent to Cherbourg, the nearest large town, to learn to be a painter. Here, and later in Paris, he received instruction from various artists, but his greatest teacher was Nature. So he turned from the schools of Paris, and the artificial standards of his fellow artists there, to study for himself, at first hand, the peasant life he wished to portray. What a delightful place Barbizon was for such work we have seen from some of his pictures.

It was during the fruitful years of work at Barbizon that Millet made the crayon portrait of himself which is reproduced as our frontispiece. He was a large, strong, deep-chested man, somewhat above the medium height. An admirer has described him as "one of nature's noblemen," and his younger brother Pierre says he was "built like a Hercules." He had an inherent distaste for fine clothes which he showed even in boyhood. When he grew to be a painter, and returned to visit his family in Greville, the villagers were scandalized to see the city artist appear in their streets in blouse and sabots.

As we see in the portrait, Millet had long wavy hair, falling over his shoulders, and a thick black beard. His forehead was high and intelligent, and his nose delicately cut and sensitive. His eyes were gray-blue, of the kind which look a man through and through and which nothing escapes. The artist had so trained these wonderful eyes of his that he had only to turn them on a scene to photograph the impression indelibly on his memory.

The face that we see in the portrait is that of a thinker, a poet, and an artist. It is the face of one who held intimate converse with the great poets of the ages, of one whose favorite books were the Bible, Virgil, Theocritus and Shakespeare. Though Millet had many genial traits in his nature, his expression here is profoundly serious. Such an expression tells much of the inner life of the man. His pictures were too original to be popular at once, and while he waited for purchasers he found it hard to support his family. His anxieties wore upon his health, and he was subject to frequent headaches of frightful severity. Nor was the struggle with poverty his only trial. He had to contend constantly against the misconceptions and misrepresentations of hostile critics.

He was of too stern a nature and too loyal to his ideals to vary a hair's breadth from his course, yet criticism embittered him. "Give me signboards to paint, if you will," he exclaimed, "but at least let me think out my subjects in my own fashion and finish the work that I have to do, in peace."

Like all who have great originality, Millet lived in a world of his own, and had but a few congenial friends. To such friends, however, and in the inner circle of his home, he opened his great and tender heart, and all who knew him loved him.

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