Story type: Essay
When I meet a laborer on the edge of a field, I stop and look at the man: born amid the grain where he will be reaped, and turning up with his plow the ground of his tomb, mixing his burning sweat with the icy rain of Autumn. The furrow he has just turned is a monument that will outlive him. I have seen the pyramids of Egypt, and the forgotten furrows of our heather: both alike bear witness to the work of man and the shortness of his days.
Jean Francois Millet is to art what Wagner is to music, or what Whitman is to poetry. These men, one a Frenchman, another a German, the third an American, taught the same gospel at the same time, using different languages, and each quite unaware of the existence of the others. They were all revolutionaries; and success came so tardily to them that flattery did not taint their native genius.
“Great men never come singly,” says Emerson.
Richard Wagner was born in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirteen, Millet in Eighteen Hundred Fourteen, and Whitman in Eighteen Hundred Nineteen. “Tannhauser” was first produced in Eighteen Hundred Forty-five; the “Sower” was exhibited in Eighteen Hundred Fifty; and in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five “Leaves of Grass” appeared.
The reception accorded to each masterpiece was about the same; and all would have fallen flat had it not been for the gibes and jeers and laughter which the work called forth.
Wagner was arrested for being an alleged rioter; Whitman was ejected from his clerkship and his book looked after by the Attorney-General of Massachusetts; Millet was hooted by his fellow-students and dubbed the Wild-Man-of-the-Woods.
In a letter to Pelloquet, Millet says, “The creations that I depict must have the air of being native to their situation, so that no one looking on them shall imagine they are anything else than what they are.”
In his first preface to “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman writes: “The art of arts, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. * * * To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movement of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art.”
Wagner wrote in an Essay on Art:
“The Greek, proceeding from the bosom of Nature, attained to Art when he had made himself independent of the immediate influences of Nature.
“We, violently debarred from Nature, and proceeding from the dull ground of a Heaven-rid and juristic civilization, first reach Art when we completely turn our backs on such a civilization, and once more cast ourselves, with conscious bent, into the arms of Nature.”
Men high in power, deceived by the “lack of form,” the innocent naivete as of childhood, the simple homeliness of expression, the absence of effort, declared again and again that Millet’s work was not art, nor Wagner’s “recurring theme” true music, nor Whitman’s rhymeless lines poetry. The critics refused to recognize that which was not labored: where no violence of direction was shown they saw no art. To follow close to Nature is to be considered rude by some–it indicates a lack of “culture.”
Millet, Wagner and Whitman lived in the open air; with towns and cities they had small sympathy; they felt themselves no better and no wiser than common folks; they associated with working men and toiling women; they had no definite ideas as to who were “bad” and who “good.”
They are frank, primitive, simple. They are masculine–and in their actions you never get a trace of coyness, hesitancy, affectation or trifling coquetry. They have nothing to conceal: they look at you out of frank, open eyes. They know the pains of earth too well to dance nimbly through life and laugh the hours away. They are sober, serious, earnest, but not grim. Their faces are bronzed by sun and wind; their hands are not concealed by gloves; their shirts are open to the breast, as though they wanted room to breathe deeply and full; the boots they wear are coarse and thick-soled, as if the wearer had come from afar and yet had many long miles to go. But the two things that impress you most are: they are in no haste; and they are unafraid.
All can approach such men as these. Possibly the smug and self-satisfied do not care to; but men in distress–those who are worn, or old, or misunderstood–children, outcasts, those far from home and who long to get back, silently slip weak hands in theirs and ask, “May we go your way?”
Can you read “Captain, My Captain,” or listen to the “Pilgrims’ Chorus,” or look upon “The Man With the Hoe” without tears?
And so we will continue our little journey.
* * * * *
Charles Warren Stoddard relates that in one of the far-off islands of the South Sea, he found savages so untouched by civilization that they did not know enough to tell a lie. It was somewhat such a savage as this with whom we have to deal.
He was nineteen years old, six feet high, weighed one hundred sixty pounds, and as he had never shaved, had a downy beard all over his face. His great shock of brown hair tumbled to his shoulders. His face was bronzed, his hands big and bony, and his dark gray eyes looked out of their calm depths straight into yours–eyes that did not blink, eyes of love and patience, eyes like the eyes of an animal that does not know enough to fear.
He was the son of a peasant, and the descendant of a long line of peasants, who lived on the coast of Normandy–plain, toiling peasants whose lives were deeply rooted into the rocky soil that gave them scanty sustenance. If they ever journeyed it was as sailors–going out with the tide–and if they did not come back it was only because those who go down to the sea in ships sometimes never do.
And now this first-born of the peasant flock was going to leave his native village of Gruchy.
He was clad in a new suit of clothes, spun, woven, cut and sewed by the hands of his grandmother.
He was going away, and his belongings were all packed in a sailor’s canvas bag; but he was not going to sea.
Great had been the preparations for this journey.
The family was very poor: the father a day-laborer and farmer; the mother worked in the fields, and as the children grew up they too worked in the fields; and after a high tide the whole family hurried to the seashore to gather up the “varech,” and carry it home for fertilizer, so that the rocky hillside might next Summer laugh a harvest.
And while the father and the mother toiled in the fields, or gathered the varech, or fished for shrimps, the old grandmother looked after the children at home. The grandmother in such homes is the real mother of the flock: the mother who bore the children has no time to manifest mother-love; it is the grandmother who nurses the stone-bruises, picks out the slivers, kisses away the sorrows, gladdens young hearts by her simple stories, and rocks in her strong, old arms the babe, as she croons and quavers a song of love and duty.
And so the old grandmother had seen “her baby” grow to a man, and with her own hands she had made his clothes, and all the savings of her years had been sewed into a belt and given to the boy.
And now he was going away.
He was going away–going because she and she alone had urged it. She had argued and pleaded, and when she won the village priest over to her side, and Father Lebrisseau in his turn had won several influential men–why, it must be!
The boy could draw: he could draw so well that he some day would be a great artist–Langlois, the drawing-master at Cherbourg, ten miles away, said so.
What if they were only poor peasants and there never had been a painter in the family! There would be now. So the priest had contributed from his own purse; and the Councilmen of Cherbourg had promised to help; and the grandmother had some silver of her own.
Jean Francois Millet was going to Paris to study to be an artist.
Tears rained down the wrinkled, leathery cheeks of the old grandmother; the mother stood by dazed and dumb, nursing a six-months-old babe; children of various ages hung to the skirts of mother and grandmother, tearful and mystified; the father leaned on the gate, smoking a pipe, displaying a stolidity he did not feel.
The diligence swung around the corner and came rattling down the single, stony, narrow street of the little village. The driver hardly deigned to stop for such common folks as these; but the grandmother waved her apron, and then, as if jealous of a service some one else might render, she seized one end of the canvas bag and helped the brown young man pass it up to the top of the diligence. Jean Francois climbed up after, carrying a little prayer-book that had been thrust into his hands–a final parting gift of the grandmother.
The driver cracked his whip and away they went.
As the diligence passed the rectory, Father Lebrisseau came out and held up a crucifix; the young man took off his cap and bowed his head.
The group of watchers moved out into the roadway. They strained their eyes in the direction of the receding vehicle.
* * * * *
After a three days’ ride, Jean Francois was in Paris. The early winter night was settling down, and the air was full of fog and sleet.
The young man was sore from the long jolting. His bones ached, and the damp and cold had hunted out every part of his sturdy frame.
The crowds that surged through the street hurrying for home and fireside after the day’s work were impatient.
“Don’t block the way, Johnny Crapaud!” called a girl with a shawl over her head; and with the combined shove and push of those behind, the sabot-shod young man was shouldered into the street.
There he stood dazed and bereft, with the sailor’s bag on his back.
“Where do you wish to go?” asked a gendarme, not unkindly.
“Back to Gruchy,” came the answer.
And the young man went into the diligence office and asked when the next stage started.
It did not go until the following morning. He would have to stay somewhere all night.
The policeman outside the door directed him to a modest tavern.
Next morning things looked a little better. The sun had come out and the air was crisp. The crowds in the street did not look quite so cold and mean.
After hunger had been satisfied, “Johnny Crapaud” concluded to stay long enough to catch a glimpse of the Louvre, that marvel of marvels! The Louvre had been glowingly described to him by his old drawing-master at Cherbourg. Visions of the Louvre had been in his mind for weeks and months, and now his hopes were soon to be realized. In an hour perhaps he would stand and look upon a canvas painted by Rubens, the immortal Rubens!
His enthusiasm grew warm.
The girl who had served him with coffee stood near and was looking at him with a sort of silent admiration, such as she might bestow upon a curious animal.
He looked up; their eyes met.
“Is it true–is it true that there are pictures by Rubens in the Louvre?” asked the young man.
The oddity of the question from such a being and the queer Normandy accent amused the girl, and she burst out laughing. She did not answer the question, but going over to a man seated at another table whispered to him. Then they both looked at the queer youth and laughed.
The young countryman did not know what they were laughing at–probably they did not, either–but he flushed scarlet, and soon made his way out into the street, his luggage on his back. He wanted to go to the Louvre, but dare not ask the way–he did not care to be laughed at.
And so he wandered forth.
The shops were very marvelous, and now and again he lingered long before some window where colored prints and paintings were displayed. He wondered if the places were artists’ studios; and at one place as he looked at a series of sketches the thought came to him that he himself could do better.
This gave him courage, and stepping inside the door he set down his bag and told the astonished shopkeeper that the pictures in the window were very bad–he could paint better ones–would the proprietor not hire him to paint pictures? He would work cheap, and labor faithfully.
He was hastily hustled out into the street–to harbor lunatics was dangerous.
So he trudged on–looking for the Louvre.
Night came and the search was without reward.
Seeing a sign of “Apartments for single gentlemen,” he applied and was shown a modest room that seemed within his means. The landlady was very kind; in fact, she knew people at Gruchy and had often been to Cherbourg–her uncle lived there.
Jean Francois felt relieved to find that even in busy, bustling, frivolous Paris there were friendly people; and when the kind lady suggested that pickpockets in the streets were numerous, and that he had better give his money over to her for safekeeping, he handed out his store of three hundred francs without question.
He never saw his money again.
The next day he still sought the Louvre–not caring to reveal his ignorance by asking the way.
It was several days before Fate led him along the Seine and he found himself on the Pont Neuf. The palace stretching out before him had a familiar look. He stopped and stared. There were the palaces where history had been made. He knew the Tuileries and he knew the Louvre–he had seen pictures of both.
He walked out across the Place de la Concorde, and seeing others enter, made his way through the gates of the sacred precinct.
He was in the Palace of the Louvre; he had found the way, unaided and alone.
His deep religious nature was moved, and taking off his cap he crossed himself in a silent prayer of gratitude.
What his sensations were he partially pictured to his friend Sensier thirty years after: “It seemed as though I had at last attained, achieved. My feelings were too great for words, and I closed my eyes, lest I be dazzled by the sight and then dare not open them lest I should find it all a dream. And if I ever reach Paradise I know my joy will be no greater than it was that first morning when I realized that I stood within the Louvre Palace.”
For a week Millet visited the Louvre every day.
When the doors were unlocked each morning he was waiting on the steps; and he did not leave in the afternoon until the attendant warned him it was time to go.
He lingered long before the “Raffaellos” and stood in the “Rubens Gallery” dumb with wonder and admiration.
There were various people copying pictures here and there. He watched them furtively, and after seeing one young man working at an easel in a certain place for a week, he approached and talked with him.
Jean Francois told his history and the young man listened patiently. He advised that it would be foolish to go back to Gruchy at once. The youth should go to some master and show what he could do–remain and study for a little while at least; in fact, he himself would take him to Delaroche. Things looked brighter; and arrangements were made to meet on the morrow and go interview the master.
Delaroche was found and proved kindly. He examined the two sketches that Jean Francois submitted, asked a few questions, and graciously led the new applicant into the atelier, where a score of young men were sketching, and set him to work.
The letter written by Jean to the good old grandmother that night hinted at great plans for the future, and told of love, and of hope that was dauntless.
* * * * *
Twelve years were spent by Jean Francois in Paris–years of biting poverty and grim endurance: the sport and prey of Fate: the butt and byword of the fashionable, artistic world.
Jean Francois did not belong in Paris: how can robins build nests in omnibuses?
He was at war with his environment; and the stern Puritan bias of his nature refused to conform to the free and easy ways of the gay metropolis. He sighed for a sight of the sea, and longed for the fields and homely companionship that Normandy held in store.
So we find him renouncing Paris life and going back to his own.
The grandmother greeted him as one who had won, but his father and mother, and he, himself, called it failure.
He started to work in the fields and fell fainting to the earth.
“He has been starved,” said the village doctor. But when hunger had been appeased and strength came back, ambition, too, returned.
He would be an artist yet.
A commission for a group of family portraits came from a rich family at Cherbourg. Gladly he hastened thence to do the work.
While in Cherbourg he found lodgings in the household of a widow who had a daughter. The widow courted the fine young painter-man–courted him for the daughter. The daughter married him. A strong, simple man, unversed in the sophistry of society, loves the first woman he meets, provided, of course, she shows toward him a bit of soft, feminine sympathy. This accounts for the ease with which very young men so often fall in love with middle-aged women. The woman does the courting; the man idealizes, and endows the woman with all the virtues his imagination can conjure forth. Love is a matter of propinquity.
The wife of Jean Francois was neutral salts. She desired, no doubt, to do what was right and best, but she had no insight into her husband’s needs, and was incapable of guessing his latent genius.
As for the new wife’s mother and kinsmen, they regarded Jean Francois as simply lazy, and thought to crowd him into useful industry. He could paint houses or wagons, and, then, didn’t the shipyard folks employ painters?
Well, I guess so.
Jean Francois still dreamed of art.
He longed to express himself–to picture on canvas the emotions that surged through his soul.
Disillusionment had come, and he now saw that his wife was his mate only because the Church and State said so. But his sense of duty was firm, and the thought of leaving her behind never came to him.
The portraits were painted–the money in his pocket; and to escape the importunities and jeers of his wife’s relatives he decided to try Paris once more.
The wife was willing. Paris was the gateway to pleasure and ambition.
But the gaiety of Paris was not for her. On a scanty allowance of bread one can not be so very gay–and often there was no fuel.
Jean Francois copied pictures in the Louvre and hawked them among the dealers, selling for anything that was offered.
Delaroche sent for him. “Why do you no longer come to my atelier?” said the master.
“I have no money to pay tuition,” was the answer.
“Never mind; I’ll be honored to have you work here.”
So Jean Francois worked with the students of Delaroche; and a few respected his work and tried to help market his wares. But connoisseurs shook their heads, and dealers smiled at “the eccentricities of genius,” and bought only conventional copies of masterpieces or studies of the nude.
Meantime the way did not open, and Paris was far from being the place the wife supposed. She would have gone back to Cherbourg, but there was no money to send her, and pride prevented her from writing the truth to her friends at home. She prayed for death, and death came. The students at Delaroche’s contributed to meet the expenses of her funeral. Jean Francois still struggled on.
Delaroche and others declared his work was great, but how could they make people buy it?
A time of peculiar pinching hardship came, and Jean Francois again bade Paris adieu and made his way back to Gruchy. There he could work in the fields, gather varech on the seashore, and possibly paint portraits now and then–just for amusement.
And thus he would live out the measure of his days.
The visit of Jean Francois to his boyhood’s home proved a repetition of the first.
Another woman married him.
Catherine Lemaire was not a brilliant woman, but she had a profound belief in her husband’s genius.
Possibly she did not understand him when he talked his best, but she made a brave show of listening, and did not cross him with any little whimsical philosophies of her own.
She was sturdy and strong of heart; privation was nothing to her; she could endure all that Jean Francois could, and count it a joy to be with him.
She was the consoler, not he; and when the mocking indifference of the world passed the work of Jean Francois by, she said, “Who cares, so long as we know ‘t is good?” and measured the stocking on her nose and made merry music with the flying needles.
Soon the truth forced itself on Jean Francois and Catherine that no man is thought much of by his kinsmen and boyhood acquaintances. No one at Gruchy believed in the genius of Jean Francois–no one but the old grandmother, who daily hobbled to mass and prayed the Blessed Virgin not to forget her boy. Jean Francois and his wife studied the matter out and talked it over at length, and they decided that to stay in Gruchy would be to forfeit all hope of winning fame and fortune.
Gruchy held nothing for them; possibly Paris did.
And anyway, to go down in a struggle for better things was not so ignominious an end as to allow one’s powers to rust out, held back only through fear of failure.
They started for Paris.
Yes, Paris remembered Jean Francois. How could Paris forget him–he was so preposterous and his work so impossible!
It was still a struggle for bread.
Marriages and births have a fixed relation to the price of corn, the sociologists say. Perhaps they are right; but not in this case.
The babies came along with the years, and all brought love with them.
The devotion of Jean Francois to his wife and children had a deep, sober, religious quality, such as we associate with Abraham and Jacob and the other patriarchs of old.
The heart of Millet was often wrung by the thought of the privation and hardships his wife and children had to undergo. He blamed himself for their lack of creature comforts, and the salt tears rained down his beard when he had to go home and report that he had tramped the streets all day with a picture under his arm, looking for a buyer, but no buyer could be found.
But all this time the old grandmother up in Normandy waited and watched for news from her boy.
Now and again during the years she saw his name mentioned in connection with the Salon; and once she heard a medal had been granted him, and at another time an “Honorable Mention.”
Her heart throbbed in pride and she wrote congratulations, and thanked the good God for answering her prayers. Little did she know of the times when bread was cut in tiny bits and parceled out to each hungry mouth, or the days when there was no fuel and the children kept to their beds to prevent freezing.
But the few friends of Jean Francois who had forced the “Honorable Mention” and secured the medal, now got something more tangible; they induced the Government Director of Fine Arts to order from Jean Francois Millet a picture for which the artist was to receive two thousand francs; two hundred francs were paid on account and the balance was to be paid on delivery of the picture.
Jean Francois hurried home with the order in his trembling fingers. Catherine read the order with misty eyes. She was not unduly elated–she knew that success must come some time. And husband and wife then and there decided that when the eighteen hundred francs were paid over to them they would move out of Paris.
They would make a home in the country. People do without things in the country, but they do not starve. You can raise vegetables, and even though the garden be small and the folks poor, God is good and the sunshine and showers come and things grow. And for fuel one can gather fagots if they are near a wood.
They would go to Barbizon–Barbizon, that tiny village on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Several artists who had been there in the Summer sketching had told them of it. The city was gradually smothering Jean Francois. He prayed for a sight of the great open stretches of pasture, and green woods and winding river.
And now it was all so near.
He set to work feverishly to paint the great picture that was to bring deliverance.
At last the picture was done and sent to the Director’s.
Days of anxious waiting followed.
The picture was accepted and paid for.
Jean Francois and Catherine cried and laughed for joy, as they tumbled their belongings into bags and bundles. The grocer who had trusted them took some of their furniture for pay, and a baker and a shoemaker compromised by accepting a picture apiece. They were going to Barbizon–going to the country–going to freedom! And so the father and the mother and the queer-looking, yellow children were perched on the top of the diligence with their bundles, bound for Barbizon. They looked into each other’s faces and their joy was too great for speech.
* * * * *
Living at the village of Barbizon, or near it, were Theodore Rousseau, Hughes Martin, Louis LeRoy and Clerge.
These men were artists, and their peasant neighbors recognized them as separate and apart from themselves. They were Summer boarders. But Millet was a peasant in thought and feeling and sympathy, and mingled with the people on an absolute equality. He was peasant–and more than peasant; for the majesty of the woods, the broken rocks, the sublime stretches of meadow-lands with their sights, odors and colors intoxicated him with their beauty. He felt as if he had never before looked upon God’s beautiful world.
And yet Paris was only a day’s journey away! There he could find a market for his work. To be near a great city is a satisfaction to every intellectual worker, but, if he is wise, his visits to the city are far apart. All he needs is the thought that he can go if he chooses.
Millet was thirty-four years of age when he reached Barbizon. There he was to remain for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life–to live in the one house–years of toil, and not lacking in poverty, pain and anxiety, but years of freedom, for he worked as he wished and called no man master.
It is quite the custom to paint the life of Millet at Barbizon as one of misery and black unrest; but those who do this are the people who read pain into his pictures: they do not comprehend the simplicity and sublimity and quiet joy that were possible in this man’s nature, and in the nature of the people he pictured.
From the time he reached Barbizon there came into his work a largeness, a majesty and an elevation that is unique in the history of art. Millet’s heart went out to humanity–the humanity that springs from the soil, lives out its day, and returns to earth. His pictures form an epic of country life, as he tells of its pains, its anxieties, its privations–yes, of its peace and abiding faith, and the joy and health and strength that comes to those who live near to Nature’s heart.
Walt Whitman catalogues the workers and toilers, and lists their occupations in pages that will live; Millet shows us wood-gatherers, charcoal-burners, shepherds, gleaners, washerwomen, diggers, quarrymen, road laborers, men at the plow, and women at the loom. Then he shows the noon-hour, the moments of devotion, the joys of motherhood, the silent pride of the father, the love of brother and sister and of husband and wife. And again in the dusk of a winter night we see black-lined against the sky the bent figure of an old woman, bearing her burden of fagots; and again we are shown the plain, homely interior of a cottage where the family watches by the bedside of a dying child.
And always the picture is not quite complete–the faces are never distinct–no expression of feature is there, but the soul worked up into the canvas conveys its silent message to all those who have eyes to see and hearts to feel.
Only a love and sympathy as wide as the world could have produced the “Gleaners,” the “Sower” and the “Angelus.”
Millet was what he was on account of what he had endured. All art is at last autobiography.
The laborer’s cottage that he took at Barbizon had but three small, low rooms. These served as studio, kitchen and bedchamber. When the family had increased to eleven, other rooms were added, and the studio was transferred to the barn, there at the end of the garden.
Millet had two occupations, and two recreations, he once said. In the mornings he worked in his garden, digging, sowing, planting, reaping. In the afternoons he painted–painted until the sun got too low to afford the necessary light; then he went for his daily solitary walk through the woods and fields, coming back at dark. After supper he helped his wife with the housework, put the children to bed, and then sat and read until the clock struck midnight.
This was his simple life. Very slowly, recognition came that way. Theodore Rousseau, himself a great artist, and a man too great for jealousy, spread his fame, and the faithful Sensier in Paris lost no opportunity to aid his friend by the use of a commercial shrewdness in which Millet was woefully lacking.
Then came Corot, Daubigny, Diaz and others of giant stature, to Barbizon, and when they went back to Paris they told of Millet and his work. And then we find Meissonier, the proud, knocking at the gate of Le Grand Rustique.
It is pleasant to recall that Americans were among the first to recognize the value of Millet’s art. His “Sower” is the chief gem of the Vanderbilt collection; and the “Angelus” has been thought much more of in France since America so unreservedly set her seal upon it.
Millet died in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-five.
It was only during the last ten years of his life that he felt financially free, and even then he was far from passing rich. After his death his fame increased, and pictures he had sold for twenty dollars, soon changed hands for as many hundred.
Englishmen say that America grew Millet-mad, and it may be true that our admiration tipped a bit to t’ other side; yet the fabulous prices were not always paid by Americans–the rich men of earth vied with each other for the possession of a “Millet.”
The “Gleaners” was bought by the French Government for three hundred thousand francs, and is now in the Louvre “in perpetuity.” This sum paid for this one picture represents a larger amount of money than passed through the hands of Millet during his entire life; and yet it is not one-half what another “Millet” brought. The “Angelus” was sold for the sum of eight hundred thousand francs–a larger amount than was ever before paid for a single canvas.
It is idle to say that no picture is worth such a sum. Anything is worth what some one else will pay for it.
The number of “Millets,” it may be explained, is limited, and with men in America who have incomes of ten million dollars or more a year, no sane man dare prophesy what price the “Sower” may yet command.
Millet himself, were he here, would be aghast at the prices paid for his work, and he would turn, too, with disfavor from the lavish adulation bestowed upon his name.
This homely, simple artist was a profound thinker; a sympathetic dreamer; a noble-hearted, generous man; so truthful and lovable that his virtues have been counted a weakness; and so they are–for the planet Earth.