Sunday, April 2, 2017

Jean-Francois Millet

Excerpts from "A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900" by Will H. Low

The Millet house, its gable to the street and its entrance through the garden wall, by which it was joined to the studio, was a structure of a single story, picturesque and cozy enough in appearance. I remember at the time thinking it an ideal home for an artist, but from a modern hygienic standpoint, rheumatism and perhaps graver ills lurked in its recesses. 

Millet's House in Barbizon, France

It was, and has remained, a memorable day when the green gate into the garden was opened to me for the first time by Francois Millet. Entering, I turned to the left toward the studio. The son hurriedly explained to me that his father was suffering from one of the headaches to which he was subject, but had insisted on rising from his bed to receive the young American student.

Jean-Francois Millet
Naturally I drew back and protested against intrusion on his father at such a time; but, as I spoke, the elder man advanced. He was of large frame and tall stature, the eyes of an artist deep set with the frontal bone well developed, a strong and prominent nose and abundant beard, which did not entirely conceal his mouth; firmly drawn yet gravely kind in expression.

Clad in a knitted coat, not unlike the cardigan jacket which was familiar here at one time, closely buttoned to the waist, and well-worn trousers, his appearance was that of the peaceful provincial in France who, secure from the public gaze behind his garden wall, dresses for ease and comfort. The legend of the peasant's sabots worn by him has only this much of truth, that in the heavy dews on the plain, or in bad weather at any time, he wore sabots out of doors, as most country people do in France; as a foot covering that, after a little practice, is not difficult to walk with; which protects from dampness, and is easily slipped off on entering within doors.

Between my timidity, the little French I possessed, and the master's evident suffering, our first interview began badly enough; my chief preoccupation being to find an excuse for withdrawing quickly.

But as it progressed the interest of Millet grew as he would display, from canvases stacked against the wall, pictures in various stages of progress. There were many of these, for it was his habit to begin many things, often as a memory of something he had seen would arise, and lay them aside to be taken up and carried further, then laid aside once again as his interest was given elsewhere.

His method almost invariably was to indicate a composition lightly in charcoal, seldom, at least at that time, having recourse to nature, and never from a model posing; his work from life consisting generally in a strongly accented drawing almost in outline.

When the composition was finally arranged to his satisfaction, he drew in the figures and its principal lines using a thick quill pen with ink. Upon this, with semi-transparent colour, he would prepare the principal tones of his picture. A canvas thus prepared he would set aside to dry, returning to it later with more direct painting in opaque tones, gradually refining its colour and rendering its effect to the point of completion.
The Shepherdess, 1863 by Millet
I remember questioning to myself, although I warmly approved of the result, if the means employed by this great painter were those which were thought consistent with the best modern practice. Slavish adherence to nature was then and after the watchword of the school, and, as many do, I confounded the practice of the school with that of the mature artist, forgetting that in one learned the handling of the tools, and that the other represents the result of such study in the production of the master craftsman.

Some question of this kind I ventured to make, asking how in the studio lighted by a single window he could study the model as the figure would be lit out-of-doors.

For reply he showed me a drawing, a mere quick-sketch, as I fear even other zealous fellowers of Gerome, among whose pupils I was numbered at the time, would not have hesitated to judge; but now, to my better understanding, appearing, as I remember it, to have the indication of all the essential construction of the figure that the master, with his knowledge of form, needed to work from.

The answer to my question appeared to me, however, enigmatic: and Millet, speaking slowly and with much emphasis, explained that a figure arrested in movement and with muscles relaxed demanded at the best on the part of the artist a memory of the appearance of the figure in action; that for him the weary imitation of a posed model seemed less true, less like nature, than to follow a hasty sketch with added truths garnered from a long and close observation, aided by the memory of the relation between a figure and its background under certain effects of light.

The Sower, 1851

Millet said: "You tell me that you are in the Atelier Gerome. There, or wherever you work, think only of rendering the model as truthfully as you can. It is by such practice that you will familiarize your eye to see and your mind to retain the construction and the proportion of the human figure, and later on you will be able, through such knowledge to be the master and not the slave of the chance individual model who serves you, and give to your work the typical rather than the accidental character of nature."

"Spring" at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris

During all this time my glance had rested from time to time on what was evidently a large picture on an easel covered by drapery thrown over it. At length Millet asked me to step back. He removed the drapery, allowing the light from the window to fall directly on the picture, and a surprising thing occurred.

Ever since I have had consciousness of life, I believe that I have been looking at pictures. No picture has produced upon me the exact effect of that which I then saw. I looked out on a plain with apple trees in blossom, on either side of a tortuous road which ran to high woods in the distance. The plain was in mingled light and cloud shadow, and the wooded distance, strongly illumined, showed bright against a clearing storm sky, a portion of which was traversed by a rainbow.

The picture is well known, is now in the Louvre, where on many occasions since I have studied it with continuing admiration, but with no trace of the amazing sensation I experienced on that day. For then I did not realize that it was a painted canvas.

As a picture, it has little of the photographic realism with which many painters have endowed their work. Nor was my feeling exactly that of looking on a real scene, so much as that I was, by the magic of the painter's art, lifted out of myself and made to realize the poignant sensation of the reawakening of nature int he spring. My words probably convey but little meaning, and I can only say that I was so moved, so shaken in my entire being, that I made at the time no effort to describe my feeling to the painter, as, barely able to control my emotion, I left him.

I have since endeavoured to explain to myself this episode, unique in my life's experience, by the plausible reason that throughout the afternoon, in my tense desire to follow from one beautiful work to another the great painter's intention, I had fairly surrendered all my sentient nature to his effort. When at the last this masterwork was shown me, the method of its production faded before my mind, and the evocation of the spirit of the scene alone remained.

Another Visit

"Young Shepherdess" at the MFA in Boston
In the few remaining weeks of my stay that summer, I saw the master twice more - once in his son's studio where there was a large picture, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which was left unfinished at his death. It is a life-sized figure of a young peasant girl with distaff hanging loosely in her hands, her head upthrown, shaded by a large straw hat in dark relief against a luminous sky.

To my exclamation that for a figure of this size he must surely have used a model, the patient artist jestingly assured me that the only direct study of nature was of a tuft of grass int he foreground, "which I plucked in the field, brought into the studio, and copied," with an insistence on the last word.

Before returning to Paris at the end of the summer, I again sought Millet. This time for advice to resolve a question which had an important bearing on my future, and which was presented in so flattering a manner that it was most tempting; though my better reason sought strength to put it aside by confirmation from Millet.

Advice on Studying Art from M. Millet

When Will Low talked about the possibility of abandoning his schooling with Gerome, Jean-Francois Millet observed: "What would you think of a poet arrested in his composition by a question of grammar? The school affords the easiest way of continually studying from nature. The casts from the antique statues stand still for you to learn the structure of the human figure. The models, trained as they are, are almost equally in the same manner at the disposition of the student, who must laboriously acquire this knowledge."

Look at the antique, study the masters in the Louvre to see what these men have done with the knowledge which they have gained by their study - the elements of style, the suppression of detail which is detrimental to the typical character which you must endeavour always to bear in mind when you are trying to make a picture. When you are making a study in the school, copy slavishly all that is individual, even that which you may think ugly and from the accumulation of such information as you gain of the varieties of the human form, you will learn what will best serve you when you wish to express your own individual view of nature." And with a wiser head, though perhaps not altogether a lighter heart, I prepared again to take up my studies.

The Conclusion

I have been thus explicit in relating this incidents in detail, because I believe that it may prove useful. Our habit of arriving at results quickly works no greater havoc in any department of our national intellectual effort than in our art. The many brilliant debuts of American painters in the past generation and the rarer confirmation of their promise is sufficiently marked.

It is not, I believe, the American artist, taken as a type, so much as his environment that is at fault. Parents and influential friends begin with the neophyte in the student stage to demand prompt results, and our public is for the most part indifferent to the slow progress by which a definite expression is achieved. As quickly as an artist has shown, in early and immature work, the possession of talent, he may be extravagantly lauded.

If he is a man of parts, he affronts new endeavour with the laudable desire to deserve his success, and by earnest effort produces work retaining his first qualities and adding other; only to be accused of 'repeating himself.' Baffled - with the knowledge that Raphael, Velasquez, e tutti quanti [and everyone] made no other progress than by repeating themselves with continual added qualities - he is pushed aside, and the fickle public turns to the newcomer with its welcome - and most necessary - encouragement, reserving the right to dethrone him in turn, and so on to the end of the chapter.

Happy the land that knows that art is long, and happy the man who, like Jean Francois Millet, lives his life in full acceptance of this truth, and, with the unceasing industry of the coral-insect, adds day by day the essential quota to his life fabric.

"A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900" by Will Hicok Low, free and online:

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