In point of composition Millet’s pictures have great excellence. “I try not to have things look as if chance brought them together,” he said, “but as if they had a necessary bond between them.” So nothing is accidental, but every object, however small, is an indispensable part of the whole scheme.
An important characteristic of his work is its power to suggest the third dimension of space. The figures have a solid, tangible appearance, as if actually alive. The Gleaners, the Woman Churning, and the Man with the Hoe are thoroughly convincing in their reality.
The picture of the Gleaners especially has that so-called “quality of circumambient light” which circulates about the objects, so to speak, and gives them position in space. Millet’s landscapes also have a depth of spaciousness which reaches into infinite distance. The principles of composition are applied in perspective as well as laterally. We can look into the picture, through it, and beyond it, as if we were standing in the presence of nature.
Mr. Bernhard Berenson goes so far as to say that this art of “space composition,” as he terms it, can “directly communicate religious emotion,” and explains on this ground the devotional influence of Perugino’s works, which show so remarkable a feeling for space. If he is right, it is on this principle, rather than because of its subject, that the Angelus is, as it has sometimes been called, “one of the greatest religious paintings of the age.”
While Millet’s art is, in its entirety, quite unique, there are certain interesting points of resemblance between his work and that of some older masters. He is akin to Rembrandt both in his indifference to beauty and in his intense love of human nature. Millet’s indifference to beauty is the more remarkable because in this he stood alone in his day and generation, while in the northern art of the seventeenth century, of which Rembrandt is an exponent, beauty was never supreme.
As a lover of human nature, Millet’s sympathies, though no less intense than Rembrandt’s, were less catholic. His range of observation was limited to peasant life, while the Dutch master painted all classes and conditions of men. Yet both alike were profound students of character and regarded expression as the chief element of beauty. Rembrandt, however, sought expression principally in the countenance, and Millet had a fuller understanding of the expressiveness of the entire body. The work of each thus complements that of the other.
Millet’s passion for figure expression was first worked out in painting the nude. When he abandoned such subjects for the homelier themes of labor, he gave no less attention to the study of form and attitude. The simple clothing of the peasant is cut so loosely as to give entire freedom of motion to the body, and it is worn so long that it shapes itself perfectly to the figure. The body thus clad is scarcely inferior to the nude in assuming the fine lines of an expressive pose.