These are the 12 most famous paintings by Jean-François Millet, who was an artist of French descent and one of the founders of the Barbizon school, which was devoted to accuracy in its depictions of rural life and realism in landscapes.
He is well known for his paintings of peasant farmers, but also for his pastels, conte crayon drawings, and etchings. He was a source of inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, particularly for his early period, and also an influential point of reference to Claude Monet’s paintings of Normandy.
The Gleaners (1857)
This oil painting is one of the most famous paintings by Jean-François Millet and shows three peasant women gleaning a field after the harvest. It is famous for its sympathetic way of depicting the lowest ranks of society, and interestingly enough it was received poorly by the French upper classes.
Hunting Birds at Night (1874)
This painting, also called Bird’s Nest is drawn from Millet’s own childhood memories of bird hunters bringing large flocs of pigeons with torchlight and then clubbing them. The light in this painting seems almost supernatural. He painted each bird generally and rendered their shapes rather than their characteristics, he communicated the vast size of this flock, which seems like clouds or waves emanating from the torchlight.
Woman Baking Bread (1854)
This painting proudly represents the peasant background of the artist’s life. It depicts a woman in a dark setting, taking bread from the oven. This realistic but also warm and empathic scene is a true characteristic of the Barbizon School Millet was a part of.
Harvesters Resting (1850–1853)
This painting is a depiction of the biblical story of Ruth, a poor widow who supported herself by gathering grain that was left by the harvesters. The setting of this painting is the fertile plain of Chailly, which was a breadbasket for much of France. In this painting, he urged respect for the hardships of humble lives.
The Potato Harvest (1855)
The artist was raised in Normandy and was brought up doing hard outdoor labor, so the motivation behind this and his other paintings depicting rural workers can be explained by the memories of his youth. Besides, during the 1850s, Millet began incorporating his subjects into landscapes.
Shepherdess Seated on a Rock (1856)
This oil on wood painting depicts a shepherdess wearing a linen hood and a white cloak that were common for the peasant women of north-central France in the 19th century. There is a copy of this painting, that is almost identical and is also done by Millet. The reason for the duplication was that he was already painting the first one when he received offers for it, but he had already promised the painting to someone else.
The Goose Girl (1863)
The Goose Girl shows a young girl, who can be identified as a peasant by her kerchief and her work-roughened hands and feet. She is extending her leg to dip a heel into the stream. Millet refers to a long tradition in European art of depicting the idealized female nude in a natural setting and the artist reworks the convention from a Realist perspective, emphasizing her working-class status.
Portrait of Louis-Alexandre Marolles (1841)
When Millet was in his twenties he shared a small studio in Paris with Louis-Alexandre Marolles. The portrait of Millet’s friend was skillfully drawn in 18th century-Rococo manner and supposedly he was the one who persuaded Millet to make lighthearted pastels in the style of Boucher and Watteau.
Potato Planters (1861)
In the 19th century, potatoes were considered to be unfit food even for animals, but the peasants Millet depicted are planting them. As Millet wrote himself “Why should the work of a potato planter be less interesting or less noble than any other activity?”. With this question, he reexamined the social structure of the 19th century, but the same question can be asked today. The presence of the donkey and the sleeping child under the tree may refer to a religious scene of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
Going to Work (1851–1853)
Several years after he stopped painting portraits or academic nudes, this work came out to be one of his naturalistic images of rural life. Millet decided to paint the peasants and show their everyday tasks and hardships as heroisms, often bearing a religious message.
Haystacks: Autumn (1874)
This painting is one of the works commissioned in 1868 by the industrialist Frédéric Hartmann. Millet worked on this commission for the next seven years and in the Autumn, he depicted the finished harvest. The visible loose or sketch-like finish of the painting is characteristic of his late style.
The Sheepfold, Moonlight (1856-1860)
This nocturnal setting painting shows the moon throwing a mysterious light across the plains of the villages of Barbizon and Chailly. This work is another characteristic Millet scene of the hardships but also the beauty of peasant life.
What famous paintings by Jean-François Millet do you think we should add to this list? Comment below.