All through the years of Millet’s life and work in Barbizon, his thoughts used to turn often to the little village in Normandy where he spent his youth. His early life in the fields impressed upon his memory all the out-of-door sights peculiar to his native province. The customs of peasants in France differ in the various provinces just as do ours in the various states. Some of the household utensils in Millet’s childhood’s home were such as he never saw elsewhere, and always remembered with pleasure. The ways of doing the work in Greville were not altogether like the ways of Barbizon, and Millet’s observant eye and retentive memory noted these differences with interest. When he revisited his home in later life, he made careful sketches of some of the jugs and kitchen utensils used in the family. He even carried off to his Barbizon studio one particular brass jar which was used when the girl went to the field to milk cows. He also sketched a girl carrying a jug of milk on her shoulder in the fashion of the place. Out of such studies was made our picture of the Milkmaid. “Women in my country carry jars of milk in that way,” said the painter when explaining the picture to a visitor at his studio, and went on to tell of other features of the life in Normandy, which he reproduced in his pictures, though some of them he had not seen in all the long time since his boyhood. As a reminiscence of Normandy the Milkmaid is a companion piece to the Sower. There are other points of resemblance between the two pictures, as we shall see.
The day draws to its close in splendor, and the western sky is all aflame. Against this brilliant background the figure of the Milkmaid looms up grandly as she advances along the path through the meadow. She is returning from the field which lies on the other slope of the hill. There the cows are pastured and a rude fence marks the boundary. The girl has been out for the milking, and a cow near the fence turns its head in the direction of her retreating figure.
[Illustration: From a carbon print by Braun, Clement & Co, John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE MILKMAID]
The milk is carried in a large jar on the left shoulder. By holding the left arm akimbo, hand resting on the hip, the girl makes her shoulder a little broader, as it were, enlarging the support of the jar. The way in which the burden is kept in place is very interesting. To put up the right arm to steady it would be impossible, for the arm is not long enough to insure a firm grasp upon so heavy a weight. So a cord or strap is passed through the handle of the jar, carried over the head, and held in the right hand. The strong arm is stretched tense to keep the strap tight. The head must of course be protected from the straining of the cord, the shoulder from the pressure of the jar. Both are therefore well padded. The head pad resembles a cap hanging in lappets on each side. Even with this protection the girl’s face shows the strain.