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First Millet Exhibition in More Than Twenty-Five Years at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Jean François Millet (French, 1814–1875), Dandelions, 1867–68. Pastel on tan wove paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Quincy Adams Shaw, Jr., and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- Jean-François Millet’s depiction of the arresting beauty of the natural world is the subject of Millet and Rural France, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), that invites visitors to rediscover one of the most important artists of the 19th century. On view September 4, 2010, through May 30, 2011, in the MFA’s Mary Stamas Gallery, the exhibition presents 46 works—many of them rarely seen in the past quarter century—the majority of which are major pastels and drawings, along with lively watercolors, sensitively handled etchings, and a powerful woodcut. All are drawn from the Museum’s renowned Millet collection, one of the finest in the world. The exhibition is supported by the Cordover Exhibition Fund.

Millet and Rural France offers an intimate view of the work of Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), whose images of agricultural life are among the most recognized and beloved in the history of art. The exhibition predominantly features works on paper and showcases Millet’s engaging scenes of rural France—primarily near Barbizon—for which he is best known. It highlights the artist’s draftsmanship and technical skills, in particular, his use of light and color—precursors to Impressionism. Examples include preparatory studies in conté crayon for Millet’s major painting Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (1850–53), which is on view in the exhibition. Among the drawings are Boaz (1851–53) and Seated Harvesters I (1851–53), which show how Millet planned and constructed the complex scene—from detailed figure studies and delicate sketches of gesture and expression, to broader outlines for the finished work. The artist’s sensitivity to the effects of light, especially as it depicts times of day, is seen in The Knitting Lesson (about 1858–60) (a recent gift, to be shown at the MFA for the first time) and Morning Toilette (about 1860–62), drawings of tranquil domestic settings that recall Johannes Vermeer and his use of soft light filtered through windowpanes. Millet’s deft drawing technique is seen in the gentle conté crayon portrait of his second wife, Madame Jean-François Millet (Catherine Lemaire) (about 1848–49)—one of the finest drawings in the Museum’s works on paper collection—and in his depictions of 19th-century France, from the beauty of rural surroundings in Farm in Normandy (1870–71), to the harsh realities of peasant life in Faggot Gathers Returning from the Forest (about 1854), a scene of women burdened with heavy bundles of sticks (faggots), a work that looks forward to the drawings of Georges Seurat.

Millet’s exquisite use of color is evident in his pastels of the French countryside, such as Twilight (about 1859–63), where sunlight, depicted in myriad strokes of multicolored pastel against buff paper, creates a glowing backdrop for a man and a woman seated on a donkey, recalling the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. The rural scene of a farmer working in his vineyard, Training Grape Vines (about 1860–64), features golden browns and soft blues, and the landscape Path through the Wheat (about 1867) highlights vibrant greens and reddish browns. Millet’s dramatic pastels Primroses and Dandelions (both 1867–68) illustrate not only his mastery of light and color, but also his ability to depict the close-up beauty of simple things.

In addition, Millet and Rural France highlights the artist’s work in other media: lush watercolors of French landscapes, such as Orchard Fence near Vichy (1867) and Road from Malavaux, near Cusset (1867); a red conté crayon drawing, Young Woman Spinning (1850–52); an unfinished woodcut, Man Turning over the Soil (1863); and several oils, including a compelling and rare Self-Portrait (about 1840–41); a striking image of rural life, Man Turning over the Soil (about 1847–50); and a still life of golden fruit, Pears (about 1862–66). Nine light-sensitive works will be rotated at the midpoint of the exhibition.

“The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to view a number of the most beautiful and poignant images of rural life ever created. Millet was one of the great draftsmen and colorists of the 19th century, and he used his impressive skills to emphasize the dignity of living in harmony with nature. He influenced Van Gogh and Seurat, and his works retain an extraordinary freshness and relevance today,” said Helen Burnham, assistant curator in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, who organized the exhibition.

Millet was born October 4, 1814, in Gruchy, a small farming community in Normandy. Although he was raised to work his family’s land, the boy received a good education and when his talent for drawing became apparent, he was sent to study art—first in the nearest city, Cherbourg, then on scholarship to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the work of the Old Masters from 1837–39. Disenchanted with city life, Millet eventually returned to the countryside in 1849, choosing to live in Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau and the Plain of Chailly in north-central France. The artist spent the majority of his remaining years in that agricultural setting, documenting the humanity and majesty of hardworking people. His images depicting the nobility of peasants toiling in the field were sometimes seen as political statements about the inequities of the classes, especially given the societal changes in Europe occurring in the mid 1800s. By 1867, Millet had achieved long-overdue recognition of his talents, and he was invited to show his work at the Exposition Universelle. The following year, he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Millet died on January 20, 1875.

Many of the works in the exhibition have not been on view since the Museum presented its major Millet exhibition in 1984, Jean-Francois Millet: Seeds of Impressionism, which drew from the MFA’s collection of the artist’s work given to the Museum by several prominent Bostonians. The painter William Morris Hunt; the MFA’s first president, Martin Brimmer; and the entrepreneur Quincy Adams Shaw were three early collectors of Millet who recognized in his powerful images that he would become one of the most important artists of the 19th century. The Museum is now the largest repository, outside of France, of works by Millet, with one of the most important collection of the artist’s pastels in the world.

In addition to the works in the exhibition, paintings by Millet are on view in the MFA’s Leona R. Beal Gallery and its Polly B.& Richard D. Hill Gallery, both on the second floor.

Museum of Fine Arts | Boston | Jean-François Millet |

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