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Join us for an online experience of Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí. Begin with our Director’s welcome below, and enter the world of Millet, his many followers, and the innovative and breathtaking work they created. You will encounter text, images, and audio content from specialists (all pictured below) who offer a deep dive into specific works of art. Our journey begins in 19th-century France, on the coast of Normandy.

Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí  is organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with exceptional support from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The exhibition is presented in St. Louis by the Betsy and Thomas Patterson Foundation. Additional support is provided by the E. Desmond Lee Family Endowment for Exhibitions; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the National Endowment for the Arts; and Christie’s. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.


 

Brent R. Benjamin
The Barbara B. Taylor Director

  • Speaker: Brent Benjamin
    Barbara B. Taylor Director
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Hello, I’m Brent Benjamin, Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Welcome to Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí. The exhibition considers the artistic legacy of Jean-François Millet, a successful Realist painter in the 19th century whose work subsequently inspired some of the most prominent names in Modern art. This guide offers expert commentary about 15 works of art by Millet and his successors, including Vincent van Gogh, Winslow Homer, and Edgar Degas.

    You will hear from Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art; Abigail Yoder, research assistant; Sophie Barbisan, assistant paper conservator; and Amy Torbert, assistant curator of American art, all at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Together they share insights into Millet’s life and work, draw comparisons between Millet’s art and those he influenced, and guide you as you look more closely at a variety of Modern subjects, techniques, and stylistic characteristics. I hope you enjoy your visit to Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí.

Introduction

French artist Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) was a pioneer in developing innovative imagery of rural peasant life, landscapes, and nudes. In the late 19th century he was arguably the best-known modern painter, and his works sold for the highest prices of any modern pictures at auction. Today Millet is less well known, and this exhibition seeks to revive his importance and recognize his radicalism. The works on view by Millet and his successors present an alternative and novel narrative for the history of Western modern art emanating from his work.

Millet was born in the northwestern French coastal community of Gréville in Normandy. He came from a well-to-do and religious farming family. From 1849 until his death, he lived and worked in Barbizon, a village 35 miles southeast of Paris, where artists gathered. In his lifetime, Millet’s ennobling treatment of working-class peasant life, considered inappropriate by the established French Academy of Fine Arts, was controversial. So too was his painting technique, which involved the use of rough brushstrokes and flattened, semiabstract forms. Soon after his death, the French state embraced Millet as a national hero who had captured the nation’s countryside in all its glory.

For the first time, this exhibition demonstrates the broad impact of Millet’s paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints on successive artists. Discover how Millet’s work inspired an international following, including featured artists Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Giovanni Segantini, Winslow Homer, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Edvard Munch, and Salvador Dalí, among others. These artists admired Millet’s avant-garde approach, inventive techniques, and use of materials, which they merged with their own creative ideas.

Self-Portrait, 1840-1841
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas, 25 × 18 1/2 inches
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution 2020.49


 

Jean-François Millet

We begin with paintings that introduce Millet’s characteristic subjects, notably aspects of peasant life and rustic landscapes. A Sheepshearer, painted on a monumental scale, highlights the importance of women’s labor in French rural life. In the tender Waiting, Millet imagined a biblical scene set in a contemporary French village, as parents Anna and Tobit anxiously await the return of their son. Millet’s Man with a Hoe, a vision of an exhausted laborer, showcases Millet’s depiction of the harsh reality of 19th-century agriculture.

Two landscapes illustrate sites that are close to the artist’s birthplace in the province of Normandy. One of them, Church at Gréville, entered the Luxembourg Museum, the French national museum of contemporary art, in 1875. It became one of the artist’s best-known works. Millet also painted the plains around Barbizon, as in the atmospheric night scene Sheepfold, Moonlight.

These paintings demonstrate Millet’s ability as a colorist. From the silvery blues of the shears and pink sleeve in A Sheepshearer to the red waistcoat in Waiting, and the greens and lavenders in the rocks of Pasture near Cherbourg (Normandy), Millet’s mastery of hue and tone is ever enchanting.

 A Sheepshearer, c.1860
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 64 15/16 x 43 5/16 inches
Galerie Millet 2020.79

 

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Hello, I’m Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art and curator of this exhibition.

    This opening group of pictures by Jean-François Millet provides an introduction into the world of the artist and is anchored by the large-scale painting A Sheepshearer. Millet here shows a peasant woman intently focused on trimming wool from a sheep using delicately painted pale blue shears. In so doing, he highlighted the importance of women’s labor to the rural communities of France. The man who holds down the sheep, in contrast, is placed in the background, with his face in shadow and his features radically abstracted and barely readable. At a time of rapid industrialization, Millet evoked a world of age-old customs and peasant rituals. Yet he represented such subjects in a path-breaking manner, giving dignity to a peasant class who had often been historically marginalized.

    Alongside this picture is Waiting, another peasant scene. Here Millet’s radicalism lies in his willingness to situate a biblical story from the Book of Tobit in a rural French village rather than the conventional, idealized setting in the Middle East. The aged parents Anna and Tobit anxiously await the return of their son, Tobias. The blind Tobit stumbles out of the cottage while Anna looks into the distance. Critics attacked Millet for not giving sufficient respect to the biblical story and representing his peasants with too much realism. One critic said that the peasants seemed to be waiting for a stagecoach at Barbizon. An interesting detail in the picture is the cat on the stone bench. Millet loved cats and often represented them in his pictures. Here the cat is probably yawning and arching its back after an afternoon nap, but it could be hissing at an unidentified object outside the picture space. Both A Sheepshearer and Waiting were shown at the 1861 Salon, the state-sponsored exhibition of contemporary art in Paris, and are important examples of Millet’s exhibition pictures.

    Millet was also a significant landscape painter. The Church at Gréville, alongside, was among the best-known of Millet’s pictures in the 19th century, since it was acquired by the French state at the artist’s studio sale in 1875. It hung in the Luxembourg Museum, the museum of contemporary art in Paris, where it was seen by visitors from all around the world. We know that the important Modernist Paul Cézanne was interested in this picture and owned a photograph of it.

Man with a Hoe, 1860-1862
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 32 1/4 × 39 1/2 inches
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2020.41

The Sheepfold, Moonlight,1856–1860
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on panel; 17 13/16 × 24 15/16 inches
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland 2020.46

Rural Labor in France

In mid-19th-century France 75 percent of the population worked in rural agriculture. Jean-François Millet prided himself on his knowledge of various aspects of farming. He was fascinated by the cycle of the seasons and worked on the land as a young man. Millet’s art represents age-old patterns of life in the fields in the years before large-scale mechanization transformed the existence of the agricultural worker.

Millet’s imagery focuses on themes of sowing seed, reaping wheat, and gleaning, the activity of collecting grains of wheat left after the harvest. He represented his rural figures with a sense of heroism and dignity, often depicting them from innovative viewpoints from behind or below. His support and respect for the peasants carried political weight when male agricultural workers had recently gained the right to vote following the French Revolution of 1848. Millet was also deeply sympathetic to difficult conditions for working women, who earned about half as much as men did. For example, in Summer, the Gleaners, Millet represented women in the act of gleaning.

Millet was exceptional in his lifetime for frank depictions of the harsh realities of rural life. His approach stands in contrast to the idealized treatment of such subjects portrayed with photographic clarity of his fellow peasant painter Jules Breton. Millet’s works impacted a range of international artists who updated Millet’s visual language through the use of brighter colors, such as Léon-Augustin Lhermitte’s Gleaners and Émile Bernard’s Harvest.

Summer, the Gleaners, 1853
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 15 1/16 x 11 9/16 inches
Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art 2020.80

The Gleaners, 1887
Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, French, 1844–1925
oil on canvas; 29 1/2 × 37 3/4 inches
Philadelphia Museum of Art, The George W. Elkins Collection, 1924 2020.82

The Harvest, 1888
Émile Bernard, French, 1868-1941
oil on wood; 22 3/16 × 17 3/4 inches
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France 2020.84
© 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The Sower, after 1850
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 41 1/2 × 33 3/4 inches
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: 19th Century or Earlier Painting Purchase Fund and with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel B. Casey and Mr. and Mrs. George L. Craig Jr. 2020.117

The Sower, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890
oil on canvas; 12 13/16 x 15 7/8 inches
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) 2020.51

The Sower, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890
oil on canvas; 25 1/4 x 31 5/8 inches
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands 2020.37
© Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands
Photo: Rik Klein Gotink, Harderwijk

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Of all the artists in this exhibition, it is Vincent van Gogh who was most intensely devoted to the work of Millet. He saw Millet as a mentor and guide, describing him as “Father Millet,” and he considered that Millet had originated a tradition of modern art that focused on the importance of rural life, as opposed to the painting of cities. One of Van Gogh’s favorite themes in Millet’s work was the sower. Van Gogh represented this subject in more than 30 paintings and drawings. The Sower [Van Gogh Museum] is one of Van Gogh’s most well-known and iconic treatments of the theme. It was painted in Arles in the South of France in November 1888. Although Van Gogh idolized Millet, he was not afraid to challenge and modernize the work of the elder artist. He did this principally through color. At one point, indeed, he referred to Millet’s palette as “colorless,” and he sought to develop a bolder color palette. Here he used intense yellows for the sky and setting sun, and these serve as a complementary color to the shades of violet in the fields. Van Gogh’s work was also radical in its composition, as he cropped the forms of the sower and the tree, creating a highly abstract effect that was probably informed by his interest in the work of Gauguin and Japanese prints. The sower is faceless as an example of what Van Gogh called “the type distilled from many individuals.” Like Millet, Van Gogh shared an interest in the biblical connotations of the sower, and here he wreathed the sower’s head in a halo created by the citron yellow sun behind.

     

In the Rice Fields, 1901
Angelo Morbelli, Italian, 1853–1919
oil on canvas; 72 1/16 x 51 3/16 inches
Private Collection 2020.86

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

  • Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    I’m Abby Yoder, and I’m a research assistant in modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

    This impressive painting by Italian artist Angelo Morbelli comes from a series of pictures he made depicting laborers in the rice fields of his native Piedmont. The image illustrates a group of mondine—women who pulled weeds from the rice paddies. Working conditions for these women were notoriously terrible. They would spend as much as eight hours a day in the summer, knee-deep in muddy water, hunching over to pull small plants from the fields. In addition to working all day in the hot summer sun, the women were forbidden from talking to each other while working and had to contend with malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

    Morbelli had great sympathy for the working class and often emphasized the squalid conditions in which these people lived and worked in his paintings. In this work he highlighted the vast expanse of the rice field, which extends far into the background, with a long line of mondine. This line of bending women is broken by a single worker who stands upright for a moment to rest before returning to her backbreaking labor. While he concentrated on this sympathetic view of the working women, he also experimented with new Modernist painting techniques. He used a pure, unmixed application of color inspired by the French Divisionist (or Pointillist) artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. In fact, for Morbelli and many of his contemporaries, it was equally important to achieve harmony of color and form as well as to engage with social issues. The resulting image here is beautifully vibrant and luminous, juxtaposing the aesthetic quality of the painting and its more pointedly sociopolitical content.

    Visually and thematically, Morbelli’s painting relates to earlier works by Millet, particularly his series of gleaning women. Millet, too, was sensitive to the plight of peasant workers during his lifetime and focused his attention on their difficult labor in the fields of Barbizon. Gleaners were women who would scour the fields following the harvest to pick up any remaining pieces of wheat. It was intense work that forced them to be hunched over for long periods of time. Millet’s images of gleaners had become well known throughout Europe by the beginning of the 1900s, when In the Rice Fields was painted, and it is possible that in this painting, Morbelli was also responding to Millet’s depictions of peasants from decades earlier.

Laborers at Rest

In contrast to numerous depictions of hard physical labor in his peasant pictures, Millet frequently composed images of farmworkers at rest. Often focused on quiet moments of respite, these works highlight the exhaustion resulting from the exploitation of the rural poor, who toiled long hours in the fields for little pay. During the harvest, a 19th-century laborer’s day could extend from as early as 4 am until 6 pm. In the middle of the day, when the heat was at its peak, laborers took a period of rest, or sieste, dozing in the shade of a haystack.

The painting Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) is among Millet’s many images representing scenes of relaxation. His works were reproduced in prints and photographs and were widely disseminated. They circulated to a vast international audience and influenced a range of artists, including French, American, Danish, and Dutch painters. In 1853 a Boston art collector purchased Harvesters Resting, and it became known by American painters, including Winslow Homer. Homer responded to Millet’s pictures through his own paintings, such as The Bright Side.

The Bright Side, 1865
Winslow Homer, American, 1836–1910
oil on canvas; 12 3/4 x 17 inches
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd 2020.55

Amy Torbert
Assistant Curator of American Art

  • Speaker: Amy Torbert
    Assistant Curator of American Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Hello, I’m Amy Torbert, the assistant curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

    The Bright Side, painted in 1865 by the American artist Winslow Homer, offers a glimpse of daily life in a camp during the Civil War. Four weary men rest against the sunny, or bright, side of their tent while a fifth pokes his head out and stares directly at us. Though dressed primarily in civilian clothing, these five African American men served in the Union Army as teamsters. It’s likely that they’ve been up all night, risking their lives to drive the mules and wagons seen behind them to a new campsite within Confederate territory.

    Winslow Homer experienced the war firsthand while he was embedded in the Union Army for nearly a year as an artist correspondent for a weekly news magazine. Throughout his career Millet’s works served as a touchstone for Homer, who also sought to explore the human condition and emphasize its relationship to nature. Homer first encountered the French artist’s work in Boston, which was mad for Millet in the 1850s. Over the next four decades of Homer’s career, echoes of Millet’s monumental figures appeared repeatedly in his paintings.

    Despite its small size, The Bright Side had a colossal effect on Homer’s early career. When it was first exhibited in 1865, the painting was universally applauded by critics. It was also nearly universally deemed a humorous picture. Does this painting strike you as funny? Nineteenth-century critics found it humorous because of racist stereotypes that mocked African American men for their perceived laziness or equated their temperaments to those of mules. As a man of his time and culture, Homer could not have been unaware of this potential interpretation of the painting—perhaps he even encouraged it, hoping this humor would increase its popularity. But he also paid specific attention to distinguishing the five figures from one another and investing each with a sense of self-possession and dignity.

    Today, with this so-called humor drained from the painting, its power endures because of the care Homer took to paint these men as individuals and not as stereotypes or caricatures. Created at the end of the Civil War, The Bright Side alludes to the uncertainty that many Americans felt about prospects for an integrated society. Millet’s observations of daily, ordinary life might have provided the structure for Homer’s painting, but in replacing French peasants with African Americans, Homer encapsulated the most serious issues facing all Americans in the 1860s.

Vineyard Laborer Resting, 1869
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
pastel and black chalk; 27 3/4 x 33 1/16 inches
The Mesdag Collection, The Hague

Peasants Resting, 1881
Camille Pissarro, French, 1830–1903
oil on canvas; 32 x 25 3/4 inches
Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey 2020.56

The Knitting Shepherdess, 1856–1857
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
pastel; 13 1/4 x 10 inches
Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of the J. Lionberger Davis Art Trust 156:1953

The Breton Shepherdess, 1886
Paul Gauguin, French, 1848–1903
oil on canvas; 23 3/4 x 28 7/8 inches
Laing Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Archives 2020.111
© Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums) / Bridgeman Images

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

Sophie Barbisan
Assistant Paper Conservator

  • Speaker: Sophie Barbisan
    Assistant Paper Conservator
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Hello, my name is Sophie Barbisan. As the assistant paper conservator for the Saint Louis Art Museum, I would like to bring your attention to the material aspect of art. You are currently in front of a pastel by Jean-François Millet. This technique is characterized by its powdery appearance. You will notice that there are a number of pastels and drawings in this show. This is a rare opportunity to see so many, because pastels are very fragile and seldom travel.

    The term pastels refers both to the artwork and to the sticks that are used to make the art. Pastels are made with ground pigments or colorants mixed with fillers and held together with a small quantity of binder. Fillers generally consist of chalk or plaster of paris. The type of binder may vary but is often a vegetable gum such as gum arabic, a hardened sap from the acacia tree. Because pastels enable atmospheric effects in drawings, it became a popular medium.

    This work, The Knitting Shepherdess, dates to the mid-1850s. The artist became more prolific in this technique in the years 1860–1865. His pursuit of this medium was primarily encouraged by two collectors: the civil servant Alfred Sensier and the architect Émile Gavet. Millet produced pastels mostly for Émile Gavet, who, in exchange, provided him with a monthly stipend and art supplies.

    Because the amount of binder in pastels is very small, adhesion of the pigments to the paper is purely mechanical. This is why Millet used a highly textured paper here. The artist did not use a stump, a pencil-like tool made of tightly rolled paper that is used to blend pastel layers together. Instead, he is crosshatching and layering strokes, such as you can see in the background of the artwork. The figure of the shepherdess shows areas of flat color with a strong outline of black crayon. You will also notice that the paper, which was originally blue, has discolored to gray. This is an example of how artworks on paper can be affected by light. Because they are so sensitive, they receive lower light levels when they are exhibited. After being shown for a few months, they will have to rest in the dark, in storage, for several years.

    Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Even more so than his paintings, Millet’s pastels and drawings were highly influential to later artists, and they clearly showed his more radical stylistic innovations. His technique of layering pastel pigments often resulted in flattened areas of color, as seen here in the shepherdess’s cloak and headscarf. If you look closely at the drawing, you can also see dark outlines around the shepherdess and the sheep behind her. This effect flattens the figures even more, making them look like decorative patterns on the surface of the paper rather than full, three-dimensional forms.

    Millet’s technique here relates to a painting style adopted by the Postimpressionists in the 1880s and 1890s known as Cloissonism. This style is made up of flat areas of vibrant color surrounded by bold, dark outlines, inspired by stained-glass and enameling techniques. Two prominent artists of the Pont-Aven school, Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, frequently used this style to depict peasant life in Brittany in the northwest part of France. This can be seen in Gauguin’s painting The Breton Shepherdess. Gauguin admired Millet and often depicted similar subjects, such as, in this case, a shepherdess with her flock. You can also see Gauguin’s use of heavy outlines around the forms and his application of bright colors, which creates an overall flattening effect reminiscent of Millet’s drawing technique.

Millet and Van Gogh

In 1885 Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Millet is Father Millet, counselor and mentor in everything for young artists.” Van Gogh’s devotion to the work of Millet is perhaps most evident in his practice of making copies or variants, both drawings and paintings, based on the work of the older painter.

Between 1889 and 1890, during his time as a patient at the hospital of Saint-Rémy in Provence, Van Gogh produced 20 painted copies of work by Millet. For Van Gogh, these were an important exercise in painting the human figure at a time in his life when he had no access to live models. Van Gogh’s copies were based on black-and-white prints of Millet’s paintings rather than the pictures themselves.

Van Gogh saw his own paintings as imaginative works and described them as “translations in color.” They served as a focus for his continuing experimentation with coloristic effects. His brother, Theo, wrote in 1890, “The Millet copies are perhaps the finest thing you’ve ever done.” At times, too, Van Gogh painted loose interpretations of subjects favored by Millet, such as the constellations of the night sky.

Evening: The Watch (after Millet), 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890
oil on canvas; 29 5/16 x 36 13/16 inches
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) 2020.34

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

  • Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    The painting in front of you is Vincent van Gogh’s Evening: The Watch, from 1889. It is based on the print Night, from a series of wood engravings called The Four Times of Day. Millet designed the images for this print series, depicting various peasant activities throughout the day: in the morning, they would leave for the fields; at midday, they would take their sieste; at dusk, they would depart from the fields; and at nighttime, they often continued to work, doing household labor by candlelight. Millet’s designs were then made into prints by the engraver Jacques-Adrien Lavieille, who published them as a set. Van Gogh owned copies of these prints and, following his breakdown and hospitalization in 1889, used them as models to reintroduce himself to painting. Between the autumn and winter of that year, he made 20 paintings after Millet’s designs, including this one.

    Van Gogh had made copies after prints earlier in his career, but this was the first time he had attempted to translate the black-and-white printed image into color. To do so, he often relied on his memories of the older artist’s works but added his own interpretation as well. In this painted version of Evening, he carefully selected a color palette that would suggest nighttime effects, using violet, green, and ocher to illustrate the dramatic shadows cast by the bright yellow candlelight.

    Van Gogh’s interpretations of Millet’s prints were ambitious for their scale as well. Van Gogh’s earlier attempts at copying prints had been done on smaller canvases as he worked to regain his artistic confidence following his hospitalization. As he grew surer of himself, he requested larger canvases from his brother, Theo, and carefully translated the smaller printed images to a much larger scale.

    Van Gogh considered Evening and his other paintings after Millet’s Four Times of Day to be works of art in their own right. He wrote to Theo, “It seems to me that doing paintings after these Millet drawings is much rather to translate them into another language than to copy them. . . .” Theo agreed, saying: “Copied like that, it’s no longer a copy. There’s a tone in it, and everything is so harmonious. It’s really very successful.”

Starry Night, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890
oil on canvas; 28 1/2 x 36 7/32 inches
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France 2020.27
Photo: Hervé Lewandowski, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Jean-François Millet, Starry Night

Starry Night, c.1850–1865
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 25 3/4 x 32 inches
Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna Jr., Class of 1913, Fund 2020.44

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting Starry Night has been exceptionally lent to this exhibition by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The picture was painted in the South of France and represents a view across the river Rhône toward the twinkling lights of the town of Arles on the far bank. Van Gogh painted the picture outdoors, placing his easel by the riverbank and painting under artificial gaslight. There is a popular myth that he wore a hat circled with candles, but there is no evidence to back this up.

    Van Gogh, whose letters are among the most fascinating written by any artist, provided a detailed description of this picture. He wrote: “The sky is bluish green, the water is royal blue, the earth is mauve. The city is mauve and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and the reflections are reddish gold fading into bronze-green. On the bluish green field of the sky, the Great Bear, twinkling in green and pink, its modest glow contrasting with the strong gold of the gaslight. Two colorful little figures of lovers in the foreground.” Van Gogh’s evocative words highlight his nuanced attention to color in his rendering of both the natural light of the stars and the artificial gaslight. This is, in fact, the only night scene by Van Gogh which represents an identifiable constellation, namely, the Big Dipper (or what Van Gogh referred to as the Great Bear), painted here in the center of the sky.

    Van Gogh’s interest in the night sky was inspired by the example of Millet, and to your right is Millet’s carefully observed Starry Sky. Van Gogh and Millet shared an interest in astronomy and read popular books and articles on the subject. Millet often took night walks on the plains around his studio and wrote on one occasion: “If only you knew how beautiful the night is! There are times when I hurry out-of-doors at nightfall . . . and I always come in overwhelmed. The calm and the grandeur of it are so awesome that I feel actually afraid.” Both Millet and Van Gogh also felt that the star-filled sky carried a spiritual significance.

    The following year, in 1889, Van Gogh returned to the theme of the starry night in a second treatment of the subject, the well-known picture now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Millet’s Nudes

Millet’s academic training at the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris provided him with an accomplished understanding of anatomy and the human form. The human body had been a principal subject for artists since the 15th- and 16th-century European Renaissance. In his early career, and particularly in the 1840s, Millet produced a large number of female nudes, generally for the Parisian art market, as a means of supporting his young family. At times, these works carried erotic meanings, as in the painting The Shooting Stars.

Millet depicted nude figures in a variety of poses, sometimes sitting or crouching, sometimes with extended and contorted forms, as in Two Bathers and The Goose Girl. In 1849 Millet moved to the village of Barbizon, 35 miles southeast of Paris, and he shifted his attention away from the nude and toward nature and rural subjects. However, as a fundamental aspect of his academic training, he continued to portray nudes intermittently.

Millet’s nudes influenced the Impressionists, a group of avant-garde French painters who used visible brushstrokes to represent light and movement. Most notably, Impressionist artist Edgar Degas collected Millet’s drawings. Degas’s work explored similarly unconventional poses and perspectives, although he typically situated his female nudes in an urban context.

The Goose Girl, c.1863
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 14 15/16 × 18 5/16 inches
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland 2020.66

Breakfast after the Bath, 1894
Edgar Degas, French, 1834–1917
charcoal and pastel on wove paper; 40 15/16 x 26 15/16 inches
Triton Collection Foundation 2020.124

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Sophie Barbisan
Assistant Paper Conservator

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    In this large-scale pastel Degas shows a woman who bends down to dry her foot or ankle with a towel. She has just climbed out of a metal bath that is rendered in cool blue. In this quasi-abstract composition the foreground armchair creates a curving mass over which is draped the woman’s dressing gown. In the background the woman’s servant arrives with a cup of tea or hot chocolate. Degas repeatedly represented the female nude and once noted that “I have too often treated woman as an animal.” Yet, despite the implied detachment and, indeed, misogyny of this comment, this carefully worked pastel can be seen in a more positive sense as an attempt to evoke, with some empathy, the private world and rituals of this affluent woman.

    Degas produced a large number of pastels of bathers in a wide range of poses. These were undoubtedly indebted to the example of Millet’s bather paintings. Degas owned drawings of nudes by Millet and would have known the artist’s picture The Two Bathers that was in the Luxembourg Museum, the French museum of contemporary art. While Millet situated his bathers in rural settings, Degas moved his women into the very urban location of modern Paris.

    Speaker: Sophie Barbisan
    Assistant Paper Conservator
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Edgar Degas’s pastels are among the most technically complex artworks of the 19th century. Degas consistently experimented with the medium, which can make it a challenge for the conservator or art historian to understand how he made his art. For example, Degas would wet his pastel sticks, or steam them, to alter their colors and texture. Pastels would sometimes be crushed and mixed with casein, a milk-protein binder. The surface could be scratched or altered with a brush. Degas also experimented with the type of paper he used for his pastels. In the later part of the 19th century, tracing paper became available to artists, and Degas enthusiastically adopted it as a support. Because the papers Degas used were thin and fragile, they were often mounted. Degas would generally develop his composition with charcoal and dark pastels. He would then take his work half-finished to his colleur, which means “mounter” in French. The mounter would adhere the fragile primary support to brown paperboard.

    In Breakfast after the Bath Degas started his composition with charcoal to place the figures. He then layered pastel on top, sometimes letting the paper show through, such as in the lower left corner. Degas then reworked the outline of his composition by adding more charcoal on top of the pastel. The back of the bather was modeled by crosshatching. On the other hand, the smoothness of the pink fabric next to her was created by blending pastel layers together. The apron of the maid shows bright accents of white, likely applied with a brush.

Millet’s Drawings and Their Legacy

Drawing played a key role in Millet’s artistic practice, both as a precursor to his paintings and as an opportunity to create stand-alone works of art. He made numerous preparatory studies for his paintings, in some cases executing dozens of compositional and figure drawings for the final work. During the 1850s, Millet enjoyed considerable success in selling drawings to Parisian collectors and art dealers, and he created many works with this market in mind.

Millet was particularly attracted to Conté crayon, a type of crayon made from mixing graphite and clay. Millet preferred it as a drawing medium over the more commonly used charcoal, as it better retained his gestural, expressive lines. By the 1860s, he incorporated color into his drawings, using pastel, a crayon made of powdered pigment. In some works, he included just a touch or highlight of color in an otherwise black-and-white image; in others, he would build up the entire image with layers of colorful hues.

Millet’s drawings, even more than his paintings, influenced numerous subsequent artists, including fellow Frenchmen Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, and Edgar Degas. These artists would have seen a wide range of Millet’s graphic work exhibited in the artist’s retrospective exhibition in 1887 and again at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Millet’s drawings were also often reproduced in the press and in photographs, which made them readily available to a broad audience.

The Flight Into Egypt, 1859-1869
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
black and brown conté crayon, pen, black ink and traces of black pastel, over gray washes, on cream wove paper, edge-mounted on laminated woodpulp board; 12 1/2 × 16 inches
Art Institute of Chicago, The Regenstein Collection 2020.48

Peasants, 1881-1884
Georges Seurat, French, 1859–1891
Conté crayon; 9 3/4 × 12 7/16 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876-1967), 1967 2020.91

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

Sophie Barbisan
Assistant Paper Conservator

  • Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Millet’s skill as a draftsman is clear from this drawing depicting the Flight into Egypt. This religious image has been transformed into something of a contemporary genre scene, with peasants departing the fields at twilight, similar to many of Millet’s other works from this time. This in itself made the work innovative, but Millet’s radicalism comes through in his modern treatment of the forms and space. By building up pigment in certain areas while allowing the bare paper to show through in others, Millet created an array of black, white, and gray tonalities in the figures, field, water, and sky. He built up the figures in the foreground using dense crosshatching marks. Placing these darkened figures against the lighter background, the figures themselves become more like simplified, flattened silhouettes.

    While many critics during Millet’s lifetime criticized him for his simplification of forms, this technique was actually celebrated by numerous artists in the late 1800s. One successor to Millet’s drawing style in the 1880s was Georges Seurat, who not only often used the same medium as the older artist but also chose to emphasize flat, simplified forms. His drawing Peasants derives from Millet in terms of subject matter, representing two peasants at work in the field. Also like Millet, he played up the contrasts of light and dark by building up pigment to form silhouettes, such as the peasant on the right, while also using the surface of the paper to create areas of light. Now Sophie will talk more about the media used in these two drawings.

    Speaker: Sophie Barbisan
    Assistant Paper Conservator
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Both The Flight into Egypt, by Millet, and Peasants, by Georges Seurat, were executed with black media on paper. These types of drawing materials become more difficult to identify in the 19th century. Since the 15th century charcoal and natural black chalk had prevailed. Charcoal was produced by burning vines or twigs of wood in an oxygen-free environment. Black chalk, on the other hand, is a mined material naturally rich in carbon. During the Napoleonic Wars, from 1803 until 1815, natural black chalk supplies were scarce in France. This gave the French painter and scientist Nicolas-Jacques Conté an idea. He had already invented graphite pencils in 1795 by combining graphite powder with white clay and baking it before inserting it in a wood casing. Conté then decided to repeat the same process for black chalk by combining white clay with carbon from burning oils, resins, and tar. Cooked at low temperatures, this gave the drawing material a certain softness, and thus the Conté crayon was born. The richness of the black made it especially popular among artists such as Millet and Seurat.

    Millet used an array of techniques in The Flight into Egypt. He combined the use of black ink in order to draw precise lines with Conté crayon to achieve atmospheric effects. Seurat, on the other hand, used exclusively Conté crayon for his dark drawings, called noirs in French. By modulating the pressure of the crayon, Seurat could shape figures by achieving deep blacks or let the paper’s surface peek through. Seurat is also well known for exclusively using a particular paper for his Conté drawings: le papier Michallet. Michallet paper was handmade in the small village of Saint-Mars-la-Bière in northeast France. Seurat used it exclusively because it was much cheaper than other varieties of laid paper and had an identical texture. The artist would always divide a whole sheet of Michallet paper into four smaller pieces. Like the drawing here, most of Seurat’s black drawings have irregular borders and identical dimensions, usually 12 ¼ by 9 ½ inches.

Rural Portraits

One of the most notable aspects of Millet’s images of the countryside is his interest in capturing the essence of family life. He came from a large family of nine siblings, and he and his wife, Catherine Lemaire, had nine children: six girls and three boys.

Millet’s works reflect the importance of the family unit and the tenderness of family existence in a rural community. In developing his compositions, Millet used non-professional models of all ages, including his wife and children, as in The Knitting Lesson, where the models are his wife, Catherine, and one of his daughters. Frequently, his work drew upon his memories of his upbringing in a stone cottage in a remote part of the Normandy coast.

Millet’s first-hand experience of rural family life lent his work an authenticity and intimacy that influenced the Impressionists, who also commonly chose to use non-professional models such as laborers and family members. While the atheist Camille Pissarro complained that Millet was “too biblical”, he was deeply affected by the older artist’s careful study of peasant customs, as in his Peasant Girl with a Straw Hat. French painter Paul Cézanne described Millet as an artist who had started a “revolution” by “rediscovering nature.” Millet’s work also impacted international artists with a deep sensitivity to country life, including Italian Giovanni Segantini and German Paula Modersohn-Becker, as in Two Girls in Front of Birch Trees and Old Peasant Woman.

The Knitting Lesson, 1869
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 39 7/8 x 32 3/4 inches
Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 106:1939

Peasant Girl with a Straw Hat, 1881
Camille Pissarro, French, 1830–1903
oil on canvas; 28 7/8 x 23 7/16 inches
National Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection 2020.68

Two Girls in Front of Birch Trees, c.1905
Paula Modersohn-Becker, German, 1876–1907
oil on cardboard; 21 3/4 x 13 7/8 inches
Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May 914:1983

Old Peasant Woman, c. 1905
Paula Modersohn-Becker, German, 1876–1907
oil on canvas; 29 3/4 × 22 3/4 inches
Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Robert H. Tannahill

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

  • Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    This portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker depicts a resident of Worpswede, an isolated farming community outside of Bremen, Germany. Worpswede was also home to an artists’ colony whose members, including Modersohn-Becker, were inspired by Millet and his fellow Barbizon artists to paint the rural landscape and its inhabitants. We don’t know this woman’s identity, but she frequently sat for Modersohn-Becker and appears in other works.

    While her male counterparts painted workers in the fields and scenic vistas from the surrounding hills and birch forests, Modersohn-Becker specialized in quiet subjects of everyday life. She excelled at depicting village children and the women who cared for them as complex individuals rather than generic types. This woman’s plain blue dress and white cap identify her as a worker; her broad, heavy hands, which are enlarged for effect, represent a lifetime of manual labor. But in Modersohn-Becker’s portrait, she sits at rest and gazes deeply into the distance with her hands crossed on her chest in an enigmatic gesture sometimes described as prayerful. The woman’s mysterious pose, the yellow flower laying forgotten on her lap, and the curious leafy background are Modernist details that bring Millet’s peasants into the 20th century.

    Barred from the Academy because she was a woman, Modersohn-Becker frequently traveled to Paris between 1900 and 1907 to learn about the latest developments in Modern art. She wrote letters home to her husband in Worpswede filled with vivid descriptions of the art she saw. Alongside the great Postimpressionists of her day—Cézanne, Van Gogh, and especially Gauguin—she praised Millet, seeing his farms and haystacks in the French countryside and admiring his technique. After visiting Millet’s Paris gallery in 1900, she described “wonderful pictures,” including the “most beautiful” one of a fieldworker putting on a jacket against an evening sky. In later letters she admires the intimacy of Millet’s paintings and writes in her journal: “I must strive for the utmost simplicity united with the most intimate power of observation. That’s where greatness lies.” This quality of greatness in simple observation applies equally to Modersohn-Becker’s best paintings, like Old Peasant Woman seen here, and to the Millet paintings that inspired her.

Millet’s Landscapes and Their Impact

Millet was always interested in the careful study of nature, although he rarely painted outdoors, preferring to rely on drawings or on his exceptional memory. In the final decade of his life, Millet gave new attention to landscape painting, which became the focus for his experimentation. It was perhaps in these works that he most clearly broke with tradition and created innovative and radical compositions.

Millet’s landscapes contain expanses of land, sea, or sky dramatically cropped or with high horizon lines. He often gave more attention to grass and weeds in the sweeping foregrounds than he did to human figures. Millet concentrated on images of the plains around Barbizon. He also frequently depicted the Normandy coast, such as in The Cliffs of Gréville, and the rolling hills in Auvergne, in central France.

Millet’s late landscapes explore a multitude of light and atmospheric effects, as in Haystacks: Autumn, a view of a storm at Barbizon. These works were widely exhibited in the late 19th century and were noticed by the Impressionists, especially Millet’s fellow Norman, the artist Claude Monet. A wide range of international artists responded to Millet’s imagery, including American painters such as George Inness and the Dutch artists of the Hague School. The latter group, who often painted en plein air (outdoors), in turn influenced Vincent van Gogh.

Haystacks: Autumn, c. 1874
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 33 1/2 x 43 3/8 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lillian S. Timken, 1959 2020.71

Spring, 1868–1873
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 33 7/8 x 43 11/16 inches
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France 2020.29
Photo: Hervé Lewandowski, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The Rainbow, 1875
Willem Roelofs, Dutch, 1822–1897
oil on canvas; 22 11/16 × 43 5/8 inches
Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands 2020.74

George Inness, After a Summer Shower

After a Summer Shower, 1894
George Inness, American, 1825–1894
oil on canvas; 32 1/4 x 42 3/8 inches
The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward B. Butler Collection 2020.102

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Amy Torbert
Assistant Curator of American Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    In the final decade of his life, Millet focused increasingly on landscape painting. Spring is among the most successful and ambitious of his late landscapes. Millet represents a scene at Barbizon, focusing on the lush, verdant foliage in bloom. A single figure shelters beneath a tree from a passing shower. On the foreground path, Millet picks out those natural details that he loved to paint. To the right are tiny yellow dandelions.

    Millet worked on Spring over five years, from March 1868 until May 1873. Despite this long process, he managed to evoke a sense of the captured moment, particularly in the imaging of the pair of rainbows at back left. Millet shared this interest in the capturing of transient light effects with his close landscape painter friend Théodore Rousseau as well as the younger generation of the Impressionists who painted around Barbizon in the 1860s.

    Spring is the first in his Four Seasons series, a group of four paintings that was produced for Millet’s Alsatian patron, Frédéric Hartmann. Hartmann’s widow gifted it to the French state in 1887, ensuring that it was on view at the Luxembourg Museum, where it became among Millet’s best-known images.

    Speaker: Amy Torbert
    Assistant Curator of American Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    The American artist George Inness deeply admired Millet, calling him “one of those artistic angels whose aim was to represent pure and holy sentiments.” When Inness began to paint After a Summer Shower in the last year of his life, he turned to Millet one final time, as he had done so frequently over the course of his career. This time, he recalled Millet’s Spring, a work that the French artist had painted close to the end of his own life two decades earlier.

    These two late, great landscapes rhyme visually, with the forms of one reflected in the shapes of the other. They also share symbolic meanings: a storm has passed, leaving a transformed and glorious world, verdant and lush with the signs of rebirth and renewal.

    For Inness, a painting was not a record of physical vision but the means to suggest a spiritual understanding of nature. As he remarked shortly before his death, “People ask why I keep on, old as I am—for I am 70—and I say,  Simply because of a principle beyond me that goes on outside of me in developing higher and higher forms of truth.”

The Gorge at Varengeville, 1882
Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926
oil on canvas; 33 1/2 x 40 inches
David and Mary Beth Shimmon 2020.110

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Like Millet, Claude Monet came from Normandy, and both men felt a deep attachment to the sea. Monet even noted at one point that he would like to be buried at sea. This picture represents the rugged coastline at Varengeville on the Normandy coast in the north of France. On a bright, sunny day, Monet depicts the illuminated cliffs and the shadowed sides of a gorge that cuts through the cliff face. Perched on the cliff is a customhouse, built in the early 19th century to monitor shipping off the coast of France. By the time of Monet’s painting, it was used by fishermen to store their nets and supplies. The cottage offers a sign of human presence in the landscape and formally provides an accent of red as a complementary to the dominant green of the composition.

    Monet later reminisced about Millet that “I admired him so much.” He remembered seeing Millet at a party as a young man and was too nervous to approach him because of the elder artist’s reputation for being aloof and reserved. The plunging perspective and high horizon of Gorge at Varengeville is indebted to Millet’s marine imagery, which Monet would have known well.

The Angelus

The Angelus, a meditative view of a man and woman at prayer in a partially harvested field, is probably Millet’s best-known picture. It was the most expensive painting of its time when it sold at auction in 1889, and the American Art Association in New York paid a record-breaking amount for it. Within a year, The Angelus was bought by the prominent French collector Alfred Chauchard, who later bequeathed it to the Louvre Museum in 1909. Today, it is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.

In France, the picture became a symbol of national pride by the late 19th century. Images of The Angelus were widely reproduced in books, newspapers, prints, and photographs. It embodied a vision of piety and devotion, fruitful land and dignity of labor, and played a major role in the mythmaking related to Millet after his death in 1875.

Numerous artists across Europe, North America, and Asia responded to Millet’s painting. Among these were the Italian Giovanni Segantini, the Norwegian Edvard Munch, and the Russian Natalia Goncharova. It was the Spanish Surrealist, Salvador Dalí, who most obsessively engaged with it. Dalí developed a highly personal interpretation of The Angelus, which he described as “the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thoughts that had ever existed.” He argued that it represented a peasant couple mourning the death of their son and was encoded with symbols of sexual aggression.

The Angelus, 1857-1859
Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875
oil on canvas; 21 7/8 x 26 inches
Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France 2020.28
Photo: Patrice Schmidt, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    The Angelus is arguably Millet’s best-known painting and is an exceptional loan from the Musée d’Orsay. Millet here represented a scene during the potato harvest. A peasant man and woman have taken a break from their labor. A fork is to one side, and a wheelbarrow is behind, with bags of harvested potatoes. The two peasants pray in response to the sound of bells from the church spire in the distance. This is in many ways a painting about sound—one has to imagine the bells carrying across the Barbizon fields as a kind of call to prayer. The woman bends her head, praying intently, but the man’s devotion is a little less clear, as he seems to twist his hat between his fingers. They recite the Angelus prayer, a Catholic devotion commemorating the Incarnation, when the angel Gabriel revealed to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the baby Jesus. We may imagine that the two peasants whisper the opening words of the prayer, “Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae” (The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary).

    In the days before wristwatches, the Angelus bell, which was rung three times a day, at morning, noon, and dusk, provided an important way of regulating time for rural workers. Here it is dusk, and the setting sun throws pink light onto the underside of the clouds. Millet’s figures are silhouetted against the light and strongly outlined, and thus abstracted and generalized. As such they seem to represent types of the French peasant rather than individuals.

    In the late 19th century The Angelus came to symbolize the piety and devotion to labor of the French rural working population as well as the fecundity of the land in a nation that was still predominantly agricultural. This was also a painting that made people cry because of its intense emotion. In 1889 the Impressionist Camille Pissarro visited the World’s Fair in Paris, where he met a friend who had been reduced to tears by the picture. For the atheist Pissarro, however, The Angelus was too sentimental and mawkish an image. This is an idea that has continued into the early 20th century in modernist readings of Millet’s work. It shouldn’t, however, blind us to the iconic nature of The Angelus image, which has been endlessly reproduced in prints and photographs and has become a part of popular culture in France and around the world. As can be seen in this gallery, it impacted a wide and international range of artists.

Planting Potatoes, 1908-1909
Natalia Goncharova, Russian, 1881 – 1962
oil on canvas; 43 11/16 × 51 9/16 inches
Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Strasbourg 2020.118; © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Simon Kelly
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

  • Speaker: Simon Kelly
    Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Planting Potatoes is an ambitious work by the avant-garde painter, costume designer, and writer Natalia Goncharova, a leading artist in early 20th-century Russia. Goncharova grew up in the countryside on her family’s estate in Tula province, some 200 miles from Moscow. As a result, she was intimately acquainted with peasant culture and sometimes wore peasant costume herself. Planting Potatoes was based on her observations of peasants firsthand during her frequent trips back to her family home. Goncharova once wrote, “I loved the countryside all my life, but I live in a city.”

    In her early career Goncharova repeatedly focused on rural subjects such as harvesting, gathering firewood, apple picking, and reaping. Despite the title of this painting, the scene seems to represent a potato harvest. To the left, a woman looks out directly at the viewer as another is about to pour a basket of potatoes into a sack. Alongside, two women bend over to dig up potatoes.

    Goncharova tapped into the potato harvest theme that had been frequently treated by Millet, most notably in The Angelus. Millet’s paintings were regularly exhibited in Russia in the late 19th century and early 20th century and would have been known by Goncharova. She, however, updated Millet’s work. This picture highlights her innovative approach of bold, angular outlines and bright, flat color, both in the forms of the peasants and the geometrical patterning of the sky. The picture also suggests Goncharova’s awareness of the Cubist technique of the faceting of forms. She noted modestly, “In France, Picasso is the foremost talented artist working in the Cubist manner; in Russia, it is your humble servant.” Planting Potatoes thus speaks to the modernizing of Millet’s work in the most innovative avant-garde artistic technique of the early 20th century.

Meditation on the Harp, c.1933
Salvador Dalí, Spanish, 1904–1989
oil on canvas; 26 1/4 x 18 1/2 inches;
Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL (USA) 2019 2020.115
© 2019 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society

Abigail Yoder
Research Assistant

  • Speaker: Abigail Yoder
    Research Assistant
    Saint Louis Art Museum

    Salvador Dalí first encountered a picture of Millet’s famous painting The Angelus as a small child. According to him, he promptly forgot about it entirely until 1932, when a sudden mental image of the painting reappeared to him without warning. This brought about Dalí’s intense obsession with Millet’s picture, both in his own paintings and his writings, including a manuscript called The Tragic Myth of Millet’s “Angelus.” Describing his vision of The Angelus, he referred to it as “the most troubling of pictorial works, the most enigmatic, the most dense, the richest in unconscious thought that had ever existed.” Analyzing the painting based on what he called “delirious phenomena,” including his own fantasies and references to the painting in popular culture, Dalí constructed a new symbolic interpretation of The Angelus. Rather than being an image of piety, Dalí argued that the painting’s content was full of sexual aggression, incest, and death. According to this interpretation, Millet’s peasant couple was mourning the death of their son. The woman is slightly larger than the man, and her bowed head suggests the form of a praying mantis, indicating her predatory nature. This interpretation followed Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to analysis, but Dalí was more interested in examining The Angelus as a cultural icon. He thus examined not only the painting itself but also its cultural afterlife, including its frequent appearance in reproductions and kitsch objects.

    Meditation on the Harp, closely follows Dalí’s “delirious” reading of The Angelus. The woman, still with her head bowed, is now nude and embracing the man in a sexually suggestive pose; the man strategically holds his hat over his genitals to conceal his arousal. The man and woman are now joined by a third strange figure, their dead son, depicted with a conical head and large, swollen left foot, and a skull-like appendage that extends from his right elbow. This phallic appendage and the figure’s proximity to the nude mother further emphasizes Dalí’s interpretation of sexual, incestuous desire inherent in the painting.

Thank you

We hope you have enjoyed your online experience of Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí.

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