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Jean-François Millet


The profound influence of the work of Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) upon Vincent van Gogh cannot be overstated. One can find many interesting and diverse influences which play a part in Van Gogh and his art. These even extend into other media such as literature (Van Gogh had a great respect for the works of Charles Dickens and their focus on the working class). While Van Gogh admired and studied the works of many artists including Rembrandt and Doré, none even begin to compare to the tremendous impact of Jean-François Millet's works upon Van Gogh's.

Millet was a painter and etcher of the Barbizon school and his career runs from the early to mid-1800s. During this period he produced about 700 paintings and 3,000 pastels and drawings. Unlike Van Gogh, Millet achieved some degree of success during his career and was fortunate enough to see his efforts rewarded and his works recognized and acclaimed.

Millet's modest background had a great influence on the subject matter of his works. "I was born as a peasant and shall die as a peasant", Millet once said (although, after achieving success, Millet did learn to appreciate a more comfortable life). Millet's works are a nostalgic tribute to farmers and labourers. He felt great compassion for people who worked the soil with their own hands--it is here that Van Gogh and Millet connect.

Van Gogh always identified with the peasant class and, one could argue that he was at his most happy and fulfilled when he shared in their experience. His time in the Borinage seemed to have infused him with an even greater respect for those who toiled in order to maintain their meagre existence. Van Gogh, like Millet, viewed farmers and labourers as truly noble people and this is clearly reflected in his works.

Van Gogh began doing studies after Millet works as early as 1880. These early studies helped Van Gogh to learn the disciplines necessary in order to paint. Van Gogh felt that no one could offer him a finer example:

"Millet is father Millet . . . counsellor and mentor in everything for young artists," Vincent wrote to Theo in 1885.

Millet's influence on Van Gogh during the early stages of his career are clear. His many works painting in the Netherlands during the mid-1880s focus on weavers and peasants. The affect of Millet upon Van Gogh would diminish, however, when he joined Theo in Paris and began to socialize with the members of the art community--Gauguin, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. In 1886-87 Vincent's palette came to life and his choice of subject moved from the field to the factory, from the weaver to the cafe.

Still, the attraction toward the countryside would continue to influence Van Gogh. His paintings of the harvests and sun-drenched fields in Arles have a warm and inviting presence about them. Once again, the countryside figures prominently in Van Gogh's works.

Over the period of three months, from late 1889 to early 1890, in while in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh did 21 copies of Millet's works. These copies are both an homage to Millet as well as Vincent's attempt to further expand his own style. While Van Gogh greatly admired Millet, he felt his copies made in Saint-Rémy had a great deal of his own unique sentiments:

"If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn't have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour [...] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation."

(Letter 607)

As I mention on the Paintings Overview page, there is something of Van Gogh looking back during his stay in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, unable to find happiness in his own situation, sought it in his own past and through the works of others, especially Millet. Van Gogh was looking for a type of sanctuary while he battled his own personal demons. In many ways, Millet's works helped him to find it.

Copies after Millet

Painting Name

Origin

Date

Current Location

F

JH

Evening: The End of the Day

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Saint-Rémy November, 1889 Komaki, Menard Art Museum 649 1835
Evening: The Watch

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Saint-Rémy Late October, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 647 1834
First Steps

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy January, 1890 New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 668 1883
Morning: Peasant Couple Going to Work

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy January, 1890 Location unknown (presumed destroyed in the Second World War) 684 1880
Noon: Rest from Work

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Saint-Rémy January, 1890 Paris, Musée d'Orsay 686 1881
Peasant Woman Binding Sheaves Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 700 1781
Peasant Woman Cutting Straw Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 697 1788
Peasant Woman with a Rake Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Location unknown 698 1789
Plough and the Harrow, The

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy January, 1890 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 632 1882
Reaper, The Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Location unknown 688 1783
Reaper with Sickle Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 687 1782
Sheaf-Binder, The Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 693 1785
Sheep-Shearers, The

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 634 1787
Shepherdess, The

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy November, 1889 Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv Museum, loaned by Moshe Mayer, Geneva 699 1838
Sower, The Saint-Rémy October-November, 1889 Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum 689 1836
Sower, The

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy Late October, 1889 Collection Stavros S. Niarchos 690 1837
Spinner, The Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Geneva, Collection Moshe Mayer 696 1786
Thresher, The Saint-Rémy September, 1889 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 692 1784
Two Diggers among Trees Saint-Rémy March-April, 1890 Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts 701 1847
Two Peasants Digging

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy October, 1889 Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum 648 1833
Woodcutter, The

Compare to the original by Millet

Saint-Rémy February, 1890 Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum 670 1886


If you're interested in seeing other works by Jean-François Millet, there are some well-known examples in the table below:

Various Works by Jean-François Millet

Painting Name

Date

Medium

Dimensions

Current Location

Bruising Flax c. 1850-51 Oil on canvas 46.4 x 38 cm. Baltimore, The Walters Art Gallery
Church at Gréville, The c. 1871-74 Oil on canvas 60 x 73.5 cm. Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Cooper Tightening a Barrel c. 1848-52 Oil on canvas 46.4 x 38.9 cm. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
In the Vineyard c. 1852-53 Oil on canvas 37.6 x 29.6 cm. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Knitting Lesson c. 1854 Oil on canvas 47 x 38.1 cm. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Peasant Woman Baking Bread 1854 Oil on canvas 55 x 46 cm. Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum
Self-Portrait (sketch) --- --- --- ---
Standing Spinner c. 1850-55 Oil on canvas 46.5 x 38.1 cm. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts


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