In studying the works of any great painter many questions naturally arise as to the personality of the man himself and the influences which shaped his life. Some such questions have already been answered as we have examined these fifteen pictures by Millet. Jean Francois Millet, we have learned, was of peasant parentage and spent the greater part of his life in the country. His pious Norman ancestors bequeathed him a rich heritage of strong and serious traits. From them, too, he drew that patience and perseverance which helped him to overcome so many obstacles in his career.
In the surroundings of his childhood he saw no pictures and heard nothing of art or artists. Yet at a very early age he showed a remarkable talent for drawing. His artistic temperament was inherited from his father, who was a great lover of music and of everything beautiful. “Look,” he sometimes said, plucking a blade of grass and showing it to his little boy, “how beautiful this is.” His grandmother, too, had a true poetic vein in her nature. She would come to the child’s bedside in the morning, calling, “Wake up, my little Francois, you don’t know how long the birds have been singing the glory of God.” In such a family the youth’s gifts were readily recognized, and he was sent to Cherbourg, the nearest large town, to learn to be a painter. Here, and later in Paris, he received instruction from various artists, but his greatest teacher was Nature. So he turned from the schools of Paris, and the artificial standards of his fellow artists there, to study for himself, at first hand, the peasant life he wished to portray. What a delightful place Barbizon was for such work we have seen from some of his pictures.
It was during the fruitful years of work at Barbizon that Millet made the crayon portrait of himself which is reproduced as our frontispiece. He was a large, strong, deep-chested man, somewhat above the medium height. An admirer has described him as “one of nature’s noblemen,” and his younger brother Pierre says he was “built like a Hercules.” He had an inherent distaste for fine clothes which he showed even in boyhood. When he grew to be a painter, and returned to visit his family in Greville, the villagers were scandalized to see the city artist appear in their streets in blouse and sabots.
As we see in the portrait, Millet had long wavy hair, falling over his shoulders, and a thick black beard. His forehead was high and intelligent, and his nose delicately cut and sensitive. His eyes were gray-blue, of the kind which look a man through and through and which nothing escapes. The artist had so trained these wonderful eyes of his that he had only to turn them on a scene to photograph the impression indelibly on his memory.