Saturday, November 23, 2013

MWA XIX: Millet's Turkeys

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was one of the great landscape and Realist painters of nineteenth-century France. Like his contemporaries Courbet and Rousseau, he was considered a radical in his day. Looking at his landscapes like the work you see here, Autumn Landscape with a Flock of Turkeys, 1872-73 (image: Metropolitan Museum of Art), one is challenged to understand why these works at one time were radical. The scene is Barbizon, where Millet lived with his second wife and numerous children from 1849 until his death. Barbizon was originally a village near the forest at Fontainebleu 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Paris, but from the 1830s on, when many artists started to visit to paint landscapes en plein air (outdoors), the village grew in size and by the end of the century had become a major tourist town. Millet trained as a history and portrait painter, but eventually found his artistic calling with scenes of peasant farmers working the fields around Barbizon. His break from the tradition of painting idealized subjects, to instead paint the lowest members of society--glorifying them with Biblical allusions--led to a backlash among critics and academics that his work was a threat to the fine art traditions of the day. Millet's most famous paintings with these subjects include, for instance, The Angelus, 1857-59 (depicting a farming couple in the field taking a break to pray; see an image of the work here). In the painting here, Millet presents the starkness of the end of the Fall season. The trees are bare, a gust of wind is blowing, and the only person in the scene has her back to the viewer, huddled in her full-length cloak against the elements. A storm is brewing. Only the turkeys seem unaffected, going about their business, eating and wandering about, unaware the woman holds a stick to steer them back to their pen. Millet and his contemporaries started something new with the sketch-like quality of their finished paintings. They were able to use the short brushstrokes to convey a vitality to the scenes presented. It was a technique the Impressionists picked up on and perfected from this period on. Despite its gloom and doom, this painting charms me because of the turkeys and how carefree they are, not only in their movement but in how he painted them. The turkeys also seemed rather appropriate as this month's Monthly Work of ArtHappy Thanksgiving!

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