It’s been nearly 200 years since French realist painter Jean-François Millet was born in rural Normandy, but his stark, agricultural scenes still have the power to haunt and enchant us. Millet was first driven to painting by local clergymen, and studied painting seriously through his mid-twenties, attending the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Finding success at the Salon of 1848 after painting the lives of peasants, he abandoned his earlier picturesque scenes and devoted himself to common themes: poverty, hardship, dignity, and grace.
Though his style was considered unrefined, critics were won over by the emotional, localized color and naturalistic style with which he depicted man and his environment. Because the lives of 19th-century French peasants were inseparable from the land, so are the peasants Millet depicts. Most famously, in 1857’s The Gleaners, farm life is accompanied by a wash of light, falling from the sky and down the arms of field hands to their harvest, confirming and easing their backbreaking labor. The Angelus, painted that same year, enshrouds its workers in darkness instead, both prayerful and mournful as the day’s work fades.
Though Millet found success in his life, his bittersweet paintings are most remembered for their earthly sadness and their influence on another sensitive painter of landscapes, Vincent Van Gogh.