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The American public has not given works by Barbizon artists star billing in a little over a century. Where once Americans were proud of themselves for having recognized Millet’s talents early, they are now harder to please. Since Impressionist art has risen to blockbuster fame, it takes a monumental effort to call attention to the considerable but subtle charm of what Millet referred to as “rustic art.” The subtitle of this exhibition, “Drawn into the Light,” implies that Millet could be considered an artist who anticipated the goals of the Impressionists. It is unfortunate, in my view, to remove this artist from the context of his own period in order to lure the exhibition-going public into believing that Millet’s work is worth seeing because it prefigures Impressionism.
The myth that Millet helped to create about himself described him as a simple, pious peasant, firm in his artistic convictions despite great poverty and the indifference of the French art world. His work had a great following in Boston, where William Morris Hunt, who studied with the artist in Barbizon in the early 1850s, exerted considerable influence. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, although not fully understood so far from home, Millet’s cast of peasants was appreciated in America for their industry and apparent acceptance of their tedious existence.
What, however, if Millet’s greatest accomplishment was not his choice of subjects? Perhaps the reputation of a handful of his own paintings such as The Sower, The Angelus, The Gleaners, and The Man with the Hoe is misleading. Might it be that Millet’s real strength was actually in technical and aesthetic achievements rather than in his depictions “of rural poor as icons of a noble peasantry” ( p.1)? Such is the thesis of the exhibition which was on view in Williamstown at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute until September 6 and in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh until January 4, 2000. It will then go to Pittsburgh’s Frick Art Museum from February until mid-April 2000. One wonders whether European visitors will have fewer problems than Americans with an exhibition that features non-Impressionist work.
The exhibition catalogue is a handsome volume with excellent illustrations and an attractive layout. It is clearly organized around a series of well-chosen drawings, pastels, and watercolors that bear witness to the way in which Millet’s major compositions evolved. Some of the drawings illustrated in the catalogue are self-sufficient works. Others are studies made by the artist while searching for better compositions or interpretations. The works in this exhibition were rigorously selected to demonstrate Millet’s ability to interpret the element of light. They span a spectrum, from somber nocturnal images through bright daylight scenes. Millet’s mastery of all registers of light and the graphic solutions with which he rendered them is admirably demonstrated. It is clear that he was a master draftsman, making use of traditional academic drawing practices he learned at the outset of his career and creatively applied to bring to the point where they would work for new.
Individual catalogue entries are extensively documented. Murphy’s analysis of Millet’s methods, materials, and techniques is superb in each instance. We feel as if we were in the studio actually watching over the artists’ shoulder as he looked painstakingly for graphic solutions to correspond to his new visual goals. The thesis behind the organization of this exhibition is indeed convincing. Focusing on Millet’s innovative draftsmanship ultimately does provide a means to see well beyond the sympathetic resonance of his subject matter.
Despite the many successful aspects of Alexandra Murphy’s catalogue, it is a bit disappointing that we do not hear more about contemporaneous innovations in the graphic arts beyond the walls of Millet’s humble studio. The author looks back to Rembrandt’s prints for previous innovative graphic techniques. While Rembrandt’s influence is important, Millet could not have failed to notice the efforts of his contemporaries who were deeply involved with the etching revival. The cliché-verres by Corot and Daubigny were also attempts to explore new graphic solutions.
Millet lived within a contemporary context and not in a vacuum. He was not the only artist in his generation to be concerned with rendering light at specific times of day. He may ultimately have done it best but he did not invent this pre-occupation. In 1848 Theodore Rousseau, who also lived in Barbizon, received a state commission to paint a landscape at the edge of the Fountainebleau forest at the end of the day. Rousseau was praised for his sensitivity to the effects of the setting sun. He later painted two replicas of the same scene in which the sunrise replaced the original sunset view. In 1855 Rousseau made a point of exhibiting both sunrise and sunset views at the Universal Exhibition. At the same time nocturnal scenes were popular. French picture dealers encouraged Johan Barthold Jongkind to paint moonlit landscapes, for which they had a ready market.
The catalogue for this exhibition is a major contribution to Millet literature and it will be a standard reference for many years to come. It is not unreasonable to expect a well-organized bibliography, but this is not the case. The bibliography was designed to make reading footnote references faster and easier. To do so all references were arranged around an alphabetical list of authors. Books, museum catalogues, magazine articles, and references to vintage sale catalogues, all appear under author’s names. This presentation is confusing as it lists the names of authors twice in the same typeface and has a curious stuttering effect. Whoever engineered this bibliography would do well to examine recent Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogues which are exemplary in creating useful and well-organized bibliographical citations. Despite this shortcoming, in the final analysis this latest contribution to Millet scholarship continues in the line of its estimable predecessors.
Senior lecturer, The American University of Paris
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