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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
|A Man Ploughing and Another Sowing, ca. 1850-51
Black crayon on off-white wove paper
14.5 x 21.2 cm
Bequeathed by P.M. Turner, 1951
Drawing was of central importance to Millet’s artistic practice. It was for him both a necessary step in his painting processvirtually all of his works in oil were completed first as drawings[i]and a way to produce finished works of art directly. Millet’s surviving oeuvre includes some 3,000 drawings, pastels and watercolors,[ii] reflecting both the artist’s great productivity in these media and the consistent value his works have had for collectors. Indeed, until the mid-1850s, Millet’s livelihood largely depended on the sale of his drawings. Most of these early purchases were brokered by his friend and future biographer Alfred Sensier, a minor bureaucrat in the arts ministry. Sensier encouraged Millet to make drawings as independent works for sale, since the clients he procured were generally of modest means.[iii] He also suggested to Millet that his “scènes rustiques” had more market appeal than the “tableaux d’enfants et de baigneuses ou de mithologie [sic]”[iv] that interested the artist in the mid-1840s. Sensier’s own preference for Millet’s rural imagery is indicated by his acquisition in the early 1850s of twenty drawings, all depicting farm workers, which Sensier apparently intended to reproduce as a series of prints entitled “L’Epopée des champs” (“Epic of the fields”).[v] The Ashmolean’s drawing in black crayon of two menone ploughing, the other sowingis believed to be a work from this group.[vi]
Sensier’s advice to Millet notwithstanding, a concern for the market was probably not the crucial factor in the artist’s gradual transition, circa 1850, from sensuous nudes and pastoral scenes to his canon of peasant imagery. Equally important was Millet’s own background, the artist being of peasant stock himself, albeit from a prosperous and well-respected family in Normandy. Images of woodcutters, harvesters and shepherdesses appeared in Millet’s work even during the nine years he lived in Paris. His retreat to the fields and forests of Barbizon, thirty miles south of the city, in 1849, meant a re-exposure to the rhythms and sights of rural life that undoubtedly influenced the consolidation of Millet’s peasant themes around this time. The events of 1848 must have also affected the artist’s increasing preoccupation with rural imagery. The mood of the Revolution, Robert Herbert has written, made “lighter subjects less and less natural, and tended to grant greater importance to the serious ones.”[vii] The peasant, in particular, became a weighty and controversial figure, associated with the epidemic poverty and depopulation of the countryside and the need for social change.[viii] After the Revolution, Millet’s winnowers and sowers held new significance for viewers, and perhaps this development clinched his decision to fully develop a rural vocabulary of “epic naturalism.”[ix]
After the move to Barbizon, images informed by Millet’s childhood memories of farming life were re-interpreted through the experience of his new environs. Robert Herbert has argued that the Ashmolean drawing is an exemplary transitional work in that it shows Millet adapting the famous composition of The Sower (1850), set in the rolling hills of Normandy, to the flat plains of Barbizon.[x] The drawingwhich was preceded by a preparatory sketch in ink, now in the Granville collection of the Dijon Museum[xi]does seem like a well-ordered pastiche of memorized elements rather than an account of observed reality. The two figures have been placed in the landscape like tin soldiers on a tabletop. Each occupies his own ground line, and the space between them is featureless and compressed. One is reminded of Poussin’s prescriptive that the artist seek the “typical”: Millet’s faceless peasants are beyond anonymous, achieving a kind of purely emblematic status. They are, above all, defined by their labor, which they pursue with dull fatalism. Resigned to their tasks, the two figures seem isolated from each other, set upon perpendicular paths through the field. While The Sower was marked by dynamism, here stasis prevails. Rather than striding energetically downhill, dominating the land, as in the oil painting, the sower in the Ashmolean drawing is smaller-scaled and appears enervated by the relentlessly horizontal landscape. This bleak view no doubt reflects real-life conditions Millet saw around him; as T.J. Clark reminds us, “Barbizon in 1849 was not exactly a respite from conflict… The peasants [there] hung on to existence.”[xii] The plougher, shoulders hunched, is completely constrained by the landscape, and while the sower’s head and shoulders do break the horizon line, he seems equally locked in place. Neither is able to lift a foot completely off the ground. Indeed, the figures seem to have been formed from the earth itself, a result of Millet’s having conjured the entire scene tonally, with a similar scrubby motion of the crayon. Only the menacing cloud of crows overhead, swarming to steal grain, is free of the downward pull of gravity. Human beings are earthbound creatures, Millet seems to say, trapped in an endless cycle of labor and harvest.
[i] Robert Herbert. Jean-François Millet, exh. cat. (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1976), 111.
[ii] Ibid., 9.
[iii] Ibid., 111.
[iv] Sensier to Millet, 29 January 1851, in Bruce Laughton, The Drawings of Daumier and Millet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), 78.
[v] Both the selection of works and the title for the series were Sensier’s, not Millet’s. The prints were never executed. Laughton, 79-80.
[vi] Jon Whiteley, Poussin to Cezanne: French Drawings and Watercolours in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum, 2002), 397.
[vii] Herbert, 57.
[viii] Ibid., 10-11.
[ix] Ibid., 75
[x] Ibid., 118.
[xi] Ibid. The composition of the Ashmolean drawing is very similar to that of the Dijon sketch. The main difference is that the plougher has been made smaller and set at a greater implied distance from the picture plane.
[xii] T.J. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois, Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 79.