Naive impressions from nature: Millet's readings, from Montaigne to Charlotte Bronte.

Author:Herbert, Robert L.
Position:Jean-Francois Millet; Michel de Montaigne

Historians feel lucky when they know what a painter read, and how much luckier if they find artists who copied out passages from their readings! These signal what the painters considered particularly important and therefore give them guidance in their analyses. Among nineteenth-century painters who provided such gifts, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, and Vincent van Gogh come to mind. Now I can add to the list Jean-Francois Millet, the "peasant painter," for he copied whole paragraphs from several writers, including Michel de Montaigne, Bernard Palissy, Friedrich Grimm, Germaine de Stael, and Charlotte Bronte. His extracts, some from known authors, others unidentified, stretching from the sixteenth century to his own generation, are a welcome windfall. Housed in the Louvre and in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (see App. 2, 3), they have never before been published in connection with Millet. (1) They should interest scholars of French literature and culture as well as art historians, for how often do we find a selection from historic texts gathered together by one artist?

Over and over again the texts Millet chose to annotate reveal the same convictions: art must be based on the direct appreciation of nature without the intercession of rules and bookish knowledge, and art must be expressed in simple and naive language free of artifice and pretension. For example, from Palissy he took this sentence:

I am neither poet nor orator, but a simple uneducated artisan, and nevertheless the intention [of my essay] is no less praiseworthy than if it were the work of a skilled orator: I prefer to paint truth entirely naked without cosmetics, with a rustic paintbrush, than to corrupt it by the superficial color of the lie. (2) Without the texts that Millet copied we would still be able to locate his principles in his letters and in a few cogent statements of his aesthetics that he wrote down. However, his copied texts serve as a multifaceted mirror in whose reflections we can find diverse manifestations of his naturalism, all slightly different but all returning us to the artist's passionately held set of beliefs. We can also find in them vicarious expressions of his sense of being hounded or misunderstood by critics. Furthermore, I can now show that the first Salon review in 1865 by his friend and biographer Alfred Sensier was so saturated in Millet's advice--Sensier borrowed swatches of his writings and took over several of the painter's copied texts--that Sensier became Millet's veritable mouthpiece. By intervening in Sensier's articles and also sending letters to several other art reviewers, Millet played a large role in creating his mythical status as a rustic artist deeply rooted among the French peasantry, despite his erudition and twelve years spent off and on among Paris's writers and artists. His copied texts, we shall see, brought into play a "rustic paint-brush," central to his naturalism, which he wielded to create his peasant imagery.

Millet's conception of naturalism guided his selection of excerpts from notable texts. Naturalism was not a "movement" in French nineteenth-century arts except in literature (where it was attached particularly to Emile Zola). Art historians use the sequence of Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism without an agreed-on separate place for naturalism. Millet has always been included in discussions of Realism, but usually with the qualifiers "naturalistic" and "naturalism." His fame coincided exactly with Gustave Courbet's, for both acquired notoriety in the wake of the revolution of 1848, when the rise of the "common man" and the depopulation of the countryside lent currency to images of peasants. Both artists rejected academic techniques and traditional subjects, turning away from heroes of history, myth, and religion to peasants and ordinary people. They discarded fantasy, the transcendental, and the spiritual, along with conscious idealization. They stressed the empirical, "truthful" observation of the natural world while rejecting most of the preconceived notions and familiar conventions of art making. Their secularization of art was associated with the new urgency given to ideas of democracy, making them both into political radicals, Courbet assertively, Millet reluctantly (and only until the mid-1860s).

As Millet is so different from Courbet, realism seems too confining a term for him so he has instead been located in "Barbizon naturalism," a vague if useful term for those like Camille Corot, Narcisse Diaz, Theodore Rousseau, and Constant Troyon, who frequented Barbizon and the adjacent Forest of Fontainebleau in search of motifs. Of course, every premodern era had some manifestation of naturalism, although the prominence of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century gave it special emphasis then. For that matter, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism cannot be understood without looking into their heritage from midcentury naturalism. (3) By devoting myself to Millet's naturalism here, I aim to enrich the term, but only for his art; I will not try to capitalize the word or elevate it to a movement. Instead I shall show how one artist in the middle of the nineteenth century defended his naturalism by calling on Montaigne, Palissy, and others who offered him varied examples of naturalism in the writers' craft. Millet is the only French artist of his generation for whom such evidence exists, and it is helpfully extended by his own writings about art, not to mention his paintings, pastels, prints, and drawings.

Millet was a prodigious reader from youth. By the time he settled in Paris in the winter of 1846-47, his erudition was remarked on. Sensier, who met him in 1847, wrote that the painter "read everything--from the Almanach boiteux of Strasbourg, to Paul de Kock, from Homer to Beranger; he was also passionate about Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, Cooper, Goethe's 'Faust,' and German ballads. Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand especially had impressed him vividly." (4) The American painter Edward Wheelwright, who consulted Millet in 1855 and 1856, wrote that the artist

was a great reader; often sitting up past midnight, his brother told me, devouring some volume he had picked up in Paris, where, on his occasional visits, he never failed to patronize the book-stalls. He had read the lives of all the great painters, knew a good deal about Shakespeare and Milton, and had even read translations of passages from Channing and Emerson. (5) Toward the end of Millet's life, Henry Naegely, friend of Millet's oldest son Francois, was often in the artist's home and reported that in his studio was a bookcase "filled with the books that he loved. The Bible, Homer, Theocritus, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Montaigne, the letters of Poussin, Bernard de Palissy, Burns, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo...." (6)

From Millet's extensive correspondence with Sensier, we learn that the latter and other friends counted on the painter's unusually good memory for the books he had read. (7) In one letter he quoted Hugo but remarked that he may have not remembered it correctly. (8) In another, he suggested several readings to his friend while also reiterating a favored principle that deems creative imagination superior to merely reasoned knowledge. "Look also at LeTourneur's preface to his translation of Shakespeare. It seems to me that he says rather good things about what establishes the real superiority of creative men over those who are only educated and good practitioners of their profession." (9) In addition to the writers already mentioned, Millet's letters show familiarity with Virgil, Theocritus, Anacreon, Horace, Dante, La Fontaine, Charles Perrault, John Milton, Ann Radcliffe, Delacroix, and George Sand, and include quotations from memory from Dante, Giorgio Vasari, Montaigne, Nicolas Poussin, Hugo, and Theophile Gautier, as well as from the Bible. All in all, he was a cultured reader who, we can assume, was conversant with the major writers of his era and the past.

It is clear, therefore, that Millet was widely read long before 1865 and 1866, when he copied the texts used by Sensier (App. 2, 3). We cannot learn anything new about Montaigne or Grimm from his copies, but we will be able to refine Millet's concept of naturalism by seeing what words he chose from them, as well as how he used them to influence Sensier's Salon reviews. By 1865 and 1866, he had also developed many of his ideas about art, and these served as the lens through which he looked at his chosen texts. He summarized his views in a letter of 1863 to Theodore Pelloquet, a critic who had praised his work by linking him with the great masters. (10) He had only recently himself made such a link. Suffering from adverse criticism for a number of years, especially since the attacks on The Gleaners in 1857, Millet anticipated objections to Man with a Hoe, which he exhibited that spring. Probably with the aid of Sensier, he prepared a photograph of the picture accompanied by a paragraph from Montaigne that begins, "Let us look on the earth at the poor people we see scattered there, heads bowed over their toil, who know neither Aristotle nor Cato, neither example nor precept. From them Nature every day draws deeds of constancy and endurance purer and harder than those that we study with such care in school." He obviously thought that the prestige of Montaigne, known to all schoolchildren, would disarm his critics. In his letter to Pelloquet, he invoked Poussin and Vasari, as well as Montaigne, paraphrasing each from memory. He attacked superficial critics who wielded "bad taste and bad passions for their profit, without any concern for the good [sans aucun souci du bien]; and, as Montaigne said it so well: 'Instead of naturalizing art, they artified nature.'" (11)

Millet's phrase "souci du bien" reveals his conviction that art has a social mission. His morality had two components, the social and the aesthetic...

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