Years passed; the boy became a man and the man became a famous artist. But the path to fame had been a toilsome one, and as Millet pressed on his way he was able to return but seldom to the spots he had loved in his youth, and then only on sad errands. At length the time came (1871) when the artist brought his entire family to his native Grenville to spend a long summer holiday. Millet made many sketches of familiar scenes which gave him material for work for the next three years. One of these pictures was that of the village church, which he began to paint sitting at one of the windows of the inn where the family were staying.
If the building had lost the grandeur it possessed for his childish imagination, it was still full of artistic possibilities for a beautiful picture.
It is a solid structure, and we fancy that the builders did not have far to bring the stone of which it is composed. The great granite cliffs which rise from the sea must be an inexhaustible quarry. The building is low and broad, to withstand the bleak winds. A less substantial structure, perched on this plateau, would be swept over the cliffs into the sea. There is something about it suggestive of the sturdy character of the Norman peasants themselves, strong, patient, and enduring. It is very old; the passing years have covered the walls with moss, and nature seems to have made the place her own. It is as if, instead of being built with hands, it were a portion of the old cliffs themselves.
The grassy hillock against which the church nestles is filled with graves, a cross here and there marking the place where some more important personage is buried. Here is the sacred spot where Millet’s saintly old grandmother was laid to rest. A rough stone wall surrounds the churchyard, as old and moss-grown as the building itself. Some stone steps leading into the yard are hollowed by the feet of many generations of worshippers. In the rear is a low stone house embowered in trees.
The square bell-tower lifts a weather-vane against the sky, and the birds flock about it as about an old home. The rather steep roof is slightly depressed, as if beginning to sink in.
With a painter’s instinct Millet chose the point of view from which all the lines of the church would be most beautiful and whence we may see to the best advantage the quaint outlines of the tower. Beside this, he took for his work the day and hour when that great artist, the sun, could lend most effective help. So we see the simple little building at its best. The sky makes a glorious background, with fleecy clouds delicately veiling its brilliancy. The bright light throws a shadow of the tower across the roof, breaking the monotony of its length. The bareness of the big barn-like end is softened by the shadow in which it is seen. The plain side is decorated with the shadows of the buttresses and window embrasures.
The sheep are as much at home here as the birds. They nibble contentedly in the road by the wall, and are undisturbed by the approach of a villager. Beyond, at the left, is a glimpse of the level stretch of the sea. This is a spot where earth and sky and water meet, where the fishermen from the sea and the ploughmen from the fields come to worship God.