THE Master Builder of the Barbizon group was Jean Francois Millet. What Rousseau did for pure landscape he extended to include the human subject and advanced Corot’s reconciliation of the Natural and Classic into immediate relation with modern life. Like them, he informed the material with the spiritual ; but his imagination was more embracing than Rousseau’s, more profound than Corot’s ; withal, more human than either and more in tune with his time. He was the first artist to catch the voice of the new era and to set aringing, not only in studios, but also in the consciousness of the modern world the new message of humanity and labor.
It is unnecessary to dwell upon the incidents of his early life; boyhood and young manhood spent upon the hill farm of Gruchy; the daily routine of labor, illumined by the influence of a mother from whom he learned his Bible and by the instruction of an uncle who taught him Latin and to love Virgil; his short and dismal studentship under the classicalist, Delaroche; his early marriage and effort to live by painting little nudes; then his retreat to Barbizon and gradual discovery of himself in his first characteristic picture, The Winnower Hitherto, in his efforts to be an artist, he had struggled against his own nature, trying to put himself in the skin of others; now, at Barbizon, he had resumed the experience of his early life. Henceforth he would paint only what he understood and sympathized with. Already this rude peasant of the picture, as he stoops his head over his toil, draws back his shoulders to balance the forward thrust of the arms and bends his knees to relieve the weight of the sieve, pro-claims his author’s mastery in a new expression of age-old principles of art. For its kinship is Greek.
In later years Millet said of Theocritus, whose poetry shared his affection with that of Virgil, Shakespeare and Burns : “Theocritus makes it evident to me that one is never more Greek than when one simply renders one’s own impressions, let them come whence they may.” The words are a curious echo of the already quoted extract from Shaftesbury’s writings, published in 1711: “We should emulate the Greeks, not imitate them. We are most like the Greeks when we are most ourselves.” Already in The Winnower Millet exhibited by instinct the truth of what he later formulated in words.
The picture is the product of instinct: the source from which we are beginning to realize that all great achievements spring. Millet’s instinct, as in the case of the Greeks, led him to study nature: that aspect of nature which he knew, under which his own early life had been naturally developed; and he learned from nature, as the Greeks did, her own rhythm. The movement of The Winnower is the result of a perfect coordination of the several parts of the body to the action, demanded by the toil if it is to be efficiently performed. There is the requisite conservation as well as expenditure of energy; the absolute adjustment of contrasted and repeated muscular action and reaction ; without, it is true, the splendid dash of The Sower, but in its slower and more constrained effort, no less perfect. The eyes of Millet’s contemporaries, trained by classicalism to look only at contours and to estimate the drawing of a figure by the sculptural quality of the outside lines, saw in this one only a barbarous contradiction of what it held sacred. For The Winnower is not an expression of lines, but of mass in movement. And this is the primary virtue of Greek sculpture; the beauty of contours being superadded. But the academic art of Millet’s day reversed this; producing, for example, the faultless outlines and the nullity of mass of a Bouguereau.
What is the explanation of Millet’s immediate recovery of the principles of Greek art? First, surely, that he allowed his instinct to lead him ; ignorant, probably, at the time of whither it was leading; but, secondly, and more directly definitive, that the nature which he represented he had experienced in his own body. He himself had winnowed wheat and exercised his intelligence to discover at once the easiest and the most efficient way of doing it. To natural instinct had been added the acquired instinct. What another artist, differently brought up, but with corresponding determination to arrive at the simple truth would have had to search for with long observation and close analysis, he rendered as an immediate and first hand impression.
He could actually put himself inside the winnower’s skin and participate in his action.
This raises an interesting question: How far is the capacity of an actor needful to a painter? For it is clear that few painters start with Millet’s advantage of rendering impressions with which their personal experience has rendered them familiar. Usually it is only by imagining the sensation, that a painter can reproduce it in action. But how many have this gift, which is essentially the actor’s? Very few, it is to be judged, if one studies the majority of figure subjects. For in them the figures are merely attitudinizing; there is no real action, still less the continuity of action that makes for movement and even less frequently the coordination of movement which evolves the final excellence of rhythm. The average painter is dependent on his model and abuses the latter for the deficiency which is inherent in himself. For no artist, whatever his medium may be, can reproduce what he himself cannot feel.
Millet in his Paris days walked the Louvre. It was there that he fed his imagination, following again the instinct which lead him to what was fundamental in the great art of the past. Meanwhile he was unquestionably influenced by the modern master Daumier, whose drawings were exposed in every kiosk on the boulevards.
Daumier was the first of his contemporaries to revive the method of structure-building that characterized the drawing of Rembrandt, Hals and Velasquez, and in doing so was the originator of the principle enforced later by Manet and the Impressionists. He constructed in masses, securing by a logical coordination of dark and light an illusion of modeling even in flat planes. In his black and white work he added the expressional force of eloquent and decisive line; but it is always the mass that determines the quality of the line as well as its direction. The line instead of enclosing empty space is the definitive margin of the mass. And the latter is designed to interpret action, movement and rhythm. It is not the external shape but the inherent life of the form that Daumier was bent on interpreting. His method shears off superficialities and lays bare the structural expression. The result is vitally and characteristically expressional.
To recognize Millet’s indebtedness to Daumier is not to rob the Barbizon artist of credit for original creativeness. One might as well think it belittles him to acknowledge that he gained from the study of Greek art. For while Millet profited by the example of the latter and of Daumier, he was independent of both in his personal interpretation of the principles. Note, for instance, how he applied the principle of distributed movement. It is an observation of Rodin’s that no part of the form can express the movement of the whole. This must be distributed in fractional quantities throughout all the parts. Already The Winnower proclaims this principle, which again and again sup-plies the clue to Millet’s mastery of construction, until it reaches its most triumphant expression in The Sower and in his drawings and etchings.
Sometimes, however, the totality of the movement is distributed between two or more figures; in the celebrated example of The Gleaners, between three. One of the women is walking with body bent forward from the hips and face intent on the ground, searching for an ear; another, holding a handful of wheat behind her back, is doubled forward over the ground reaching down, while the third, stooping still lower and resting her handful of wheat on one knee is in the act of grasping. The stretch of her arm is more upright than that of the other stooping woman; and the whole action of her body is more crouching upon its lower part, more conserving of its force, even in the act of accomplishment. The greatest expenditure of force is in the movement just previous to accomplishment, represented in the action of the other stooping woman, while the third figure, alleviating the weight of her bent back by holding her hands above her knees, interprets the anticipatory action. By studying merely a photograph of the picture one can see how the total action of gleaning is distributed among the figures, so that a wave of coordinated movement passes freely and naturally through the group. Shut from view any one of the figures and at once the fluidity is checked; the chord of character-expression snapped.
The landscape of The Gleaners involves a distant view of ricks and harvesting, touched in minutely with so exact a characterization that it recalls the mastery with which Rembrandt realized in his etchings the character of level vistas of landscape. For in admiration of Millet’s figure-work it is easy to overlook his merit as a landscapist. This also appears to best advantage in his drawings and etchings. For in them he proves not only his constructive genius in mass-building and realizing character, but also his expressional ability to render the spiritual impression of the scene. For here he is not hampered by the comparative poverty of his color-scheme or by his deficiency as a brushman, which too often resulted in his painted surfaces being confused in handling and like greasy wool in texture. The drawings, on the contrary, exhibit his knowledge and feeling unimpaired.
The character of the knowledge and the quality of the feeling are alike determined by Millet’s temperament of profound earnestness. He himself said that the cry of the soil (le cri de la terre) was ever in his soul. When once he had resolved to harken to it he set his whole life and his work to its pitch. The meaning of the cry has been sometimes misunderstood. It was not, as Millet heard it, the stifled moan of laboring peasants sweating out their meager lives in the fields of Barbizon. It was the cry of the soil itself, of the earth-mother calling to humanity. The peasant was but the symbol of the universal. Millet was not a sentimentalist. More than anything he dreaded the imputation of emotionalism; and it is full of irony that his remark about The Angelus, that he wished people to seem to hear the church bell, should have led to so much sentimental vaporing over this picture. Here, as always, he was simply trying to visualize the character of the scene; and, since its momentary aspect was affected by the sound, he wished to make the spectator conscious of the latter as explanatory of the character and expression. Perhaps without the addition of the name the subject would not have explained itself, which cannot be said of any other work of Millet’s; a fact that reduces the merit of The Angelus. That the artist abetted this insufficiency by talking of a bell was a misfortune, since it wrapped the already mellifluous word Angelus in a haze of idealized sentiment, which has spread between Millet and the public, blinding the latter to his real greatness.
Millet’s imagination was of the philosophic cast which precipitates the local and the temporary and extracts from them the essence of the elemental and universal. Inured to toil from his youth, he was not in revolt against labor. It was man’s necessary share in that universal scheme of labor which held the stars in their courses and made earth yield her fruits in due season. Everything was coordinated on a universal plan. The peasants working in the fields of Barbizon were at once a part and a symbol of the whole ‘order. Beauty, as Millet understood it, was not to be looked for in their faces and figures, but in their cooperation with the divine scheme. His ideal of beauty was the harmony of fitness and coordination and Millet found it expressed in the lives of the peasants as they contributed their daily stint to the world’s routine. Conservative by instinct, he pondered the grandeur of this routine, stretching back in endless perspective through the vista of the ages; profoundly serious, he invested its significance with a kind of fatalism. The idea of a future of happier routine through labor and life being more efficiently and harmoniously coordinated escaped him. It was not as a prophet of progress that Millet enriched the world, but as the constructor of foundations on which progress must be achieved. His example tended to enforce the new ideas of the dignity of manhood and labor and the need of building the ideal on the practical, everyday things of life. The influence of his philosophic acceptance of life has been none the less potent that it was with him an instinct and not a thesis to be preached. He preached only by example; and the lesson, because of its indirectness, has gone wider and more deeply home.
Millet’s influence upon art, however, has possibly been less embracing and profound. It was only the surface ‘of his influence that average painters could skim off. They imitated his choice of peasant subjects and established from his example a cult of the ugly; but the grand style of his technique was as far beyond them as the scope of his philosophic seriousness. But Natural-ism was in the air. The scientist was applying himself with a new zeal to the study of natural phenomena; substituting for much that had been empiric a closer analysis of facts; the mechanician under the impetus of the discovery of steam-power was coordinating labor and nature on a new basis, and a Balzac had captivated the world by his presentments of everyday life and character. The painters could not do otherwise than follow suit. Naturalism was the vogue and where else but among peasants was to be found the nearest approach to nature? It was so that they interpreted and followed the example of Millet.
Many, however, followed the example of Jules Breton (18271906) and carried out into the fields their academic predilections or their citified sentiment concerning milkmaids and haymakers, peopling their canvas countrysides with the personages of the Opera Comique. On the other hand, many followed Jules Bastien Lepage (18481884) in his presentment of the crude and homely, qualified by a little sentiment. The latter helped him with the public, while his frank naturalness commended him to painters. He so completely fitted the conditions of his time that he enjoyed a reputation which, except in the case of his portraits, has scarcely been maintained. To-day we find his peasant pictures not only lacking in style, but also deficient in organic composition, little more than cross-cuts of life; and the crudeness of their naturalism has lost its original fascination. For since his time there has been a rebound to Realism.
It was the wont to regard Naturalism and Realism as practically identical terms. But the gradual recognition of two points of view in the study of nature has made it convenient to distinguish between them as con-noting different motives. A man may study, as Bastien Lepage did, the natural phenomena solely with reference to the facts themselves ; or, like Millet, view them in relation to some larger horizon of ideas. To differentiate their motives we will call the former a naturalist; the latter, a realist. This use of realism or realist is simply a return to the old phraseology of the Realist philosophers who, in opposition to the Nominalists, maintained that the totality of a conception was more important than its component parts ; that humanity, for example, is the reality; the individuals composing it being, as it were, merely incidental to the main idea. ‘So today we may style him a realist who correlates the facts of life to the large principles of elemental and universal significance. It was the example of Ibsen that chiefly helped to promote this terminological distinction; and he, as a realist, is open to the same criticism as Millet. Both viewed life from its darker side; although in doing so they established principles upon which a happier condition of existence may be built in-the future.
Judged by this distinction, most of the French painters of peasants and ouvriers are naturalists, whose work will not survive alongside that of Millet and the few others who have represented their subjects in relation to larger issues. It is difficult, for example, to expect that the coming generation will be interested in the local gloom of Jean François Raffaelli’s (1850) pictures of the Paris ouvrier, whereas the Breton subjects of Charles Cottet (1863) , notwithstanding their gloom and intensely local feeling, involve a relation to eternal issues of humanity, which should secure the interest of posterity. Posthumous fame may also be anticipated for the peasant pictures of Lucien Simon (1861) who not only views his subject in relation to a wide horizon but also reinforces this stimulating appeal by a vigorous and characterful technique. He is with little doubt the strongest brushman of the peasant painters of France, and both in portraiture and domestic genre has also done work of notable force and charm.