Millet’s instinct for pose was that of a sculptor. Many of the figures for his pictures were first carefully modelled in wax or clay. Transferred to canvas they are drawn in the strong simple outlines of a statue. It is no extravagant flight of fancy which has likened him to Michelangelo. In the strength and seriousness of his conceptions, the bold sweep of his lines, and, above all, in the impression of motion which he conveys, he has much in common with the great Italian master. Like Michelangelo, Millet gives first preference to the dramatic moment when action is imminent. The Sower is in the act of casting the seed into the ground, as David is in the act of stretching his sling. As we look, we seem to see the hand complete its motion. So also the Gleaners, the Women Filling the Water-Bottles, and the Potato Planters are all portrayed in attitudes of performance.
When Millet represents repose it is as an interval of suspended action, not as the end of completed work. The Shepherdess pauses but a moment in her walk and will immediately move on again. The man and woman of the Angelus rest only for the prayer and then resume their work. The Man with the Hoe snatches but a brief respite from his labors. The impression of power suggested by his figure, even in immobility, recalls Michelangelo’s Jeremiah.
To the qualities which are reminiscent of Michelangelo Millet adds another in which he is allied to the Greeks. This is his tendency towards generalization. It is the typical rather than the individual which he strives to present. “My dream,” he once wrote, “is to characterize the type.” So his figures, like those of Greek sculpture, reproduce no particular model, but are the general type deduced from the study of many individuals.
[Footnote 1: In Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance.]
Since the death of Millet, in 1875, much that is interesting and valuable has been written of his life and work. The first biography of the painter was that by his friend Sensier, in a large illustrated volume whose contents have been made familiar to English readers by an abridged translation published in this country simultaneously with the issue of the French edition. Containing all the essential facts of Millet’s outward life, besides a great number of the artist’s letters, together with his autobiographical reminiscences of childhood, Sensier’s work is the principal source of information, from which all later writers draw. Yet it is not an altogether fair and satisfactory presentation of Millet’s life. Undue emphasis is laid upon his struggles with poverty, and the book leaves much to be desired.
Julia Cartwright’s recent work, “Jean Francois Millet: His Life and Letters,” is founded on Sensier’s life, yet rounds out the study of the master’s character and work with the fuller knowledge with which family and friends have described his career.