My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was 13 years old when I first saw “The Gleaners” reprinted on a small tin plate as a complementary bonus to a carton of vanilla ice cream my mom had bought for me and my little brother. The painting had a peculiar charm that diverted me from the love of my favorite ice cream; its serene but picturesque impression of the three working women and the pastoral scene produced in me a peace of mind and a sense of comfort. Since that time, the painter of “The Gleaners, ” Jean Francois Millet, has become my favorite painters of all. So when I came upon this book by Hurll published in 1900 on Kindle Bookstand, I was already downloading it on my kindle with a kind of same delight I felt when I was 13 years old.
Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) was born into a hardworking and caring peasant family who had been residing in the old province of Normandy, France through the generations. The rustic, chaste beauty of the pastoral scenery and the coarse but artless and diligent village people who toiled to grow life out of land and tended flocks of livestock for living were imprinted on the senses and sensibilities of Millet. His subject matters were already indelibly marked in his nature. It is in fact, this natural beauty that became his muse and the epitome of his aesthetic beliefs. He spurned the artificial beauty of the forced setting. He believed, “The beauty is the fitting,” which links to what Saint Augustine explained in his “De Pulchra et Apte,” meaning “The Beauty and The Fitting,” in which two kinds of beauty: beauty inherent in the thing itself, and beauty by virtue of thing’s use were explained. In this regard, Millet’s tranquil beauty pertains to the latter as shown in his paintings of the pastoral life and its inhabitants.
What’s special about Millet’s paintings are distinctive features of his art. To illustrates, in “The Angulus,” “The Gleaners,” and “The Shepherdess,” the landscapes cease to be a mere setting or background in figure pictures and become “organic” parts of the compositions, focusing on the human sides in the expressiveness of the figures, and thus make both figures and the landscapes interdependent, fitting together in a perfect unity. Millet also mastered in the effects of changing the light during different hours of the day, which creates the ambience of the normal and the quiet in the paintings.
Although it was “The Gleaners” that allured me into the world of Millet’s paintings, my favorite is “The Shepherdess” completed in 1862. There is a young shepherdess knitting like she is transfixed, while her flock of sheep and her assistant black little dog are following slowly their pensive guardian. The expression of her face begets many thoughts on the sacredness of work and its worker that strikes into your heart with a sense of respectfulness, which is stretched to the far distance in the scene where men working on piles of hay and their carts to carry them over. This painting gives an impression of a suspended action captured in the eyes of the painter as if it were photographed that would proceed to move in any moment soon. Also, it renders the 3rd dimension of space with the figure of the shepherdess having a solid, tangible appearance and the space that seems so infinite, so boundless, and so eternal with the quality of surrounding light of space composition evocative of religious serenity.
This book does not contain a biography of Millet but rather serves as a reference book of his paintings to get readers acquainted with the artistic world of Millet in a short period of time. One of the reasons I chose this book is its year of publication. It was published in 1900, only 25 years after the death of Millet. Therefore, Hurll could glean information on Millet’s life from surviving friends of his, which is all the more authentic and factual, devoid of myths, legends, and fables that are so prevalent in the books on the famous who were long gone.
For these reasons, Millet is one of the fine artists whose intense love of human nature and expression thereof is the chief element of beauty. In his paintings, nothing is ignored in the landscapes as well as the figures. He was indeed a master of the arts who could use the seemingly commonplace with the feeling of sublime that gave to art its true meanings. Many years might have passed since the first time I saw “The Gleaners,” but the kind of mysterious delight of peaceful awe I felt at that time still remains with me after all those years. Millet was right: the true beauty knows no boundary of time and place.