Curators’ selection — Hidden Masterpieces

Jean-François Millet, Woman Milking a Cow, 1854-60, Oil on canvas

Jean-François Millet, Woman Milking a Cow, 1854-60, Oil on canvas
Millet was born in the village of Gruchy, in Normandy, a region in northwest France, in 1814. He began his study of painting in Cherbourg before moving to Paris in 1837 to become a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. During his early period he painted portraits and scenes depicting customs and manners. He later made the lives of peasant farmers his theme. In 1849 he moved to Barbizon, a village 60 kilometers southeast of Paris, where he lived and produced paintings of peasants until his death in 1875.

Located on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, Barbizon attracted a large artists’ colony. Millet, Théodore Rousseau, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot were the leaders of what came to be called the Barbizon school. In contrast to Gustave Courbet, who was interested in hunting and often painted deer (fig. 1), the Barbizon school painters depicted cows, sheep and other domesticated animals. Woman Milking a Cow is one such painting. Her distinctive bonnet (coiffe) indicates that Millet’s subject is a woman from Normandy.

While Alfred Sensier’s biography says that after leaving for Paris, Millet returned every year to Gruchy, where he would spend several weeks, we know that after spending a year in Le Havre in 1845, he was unable to return to Normandy for some time. He next returned to his birthplace in 1854. Because his mother had died in April of 1853, Millet returned to Gruchy in May of 1854 to meet with his brothers and sisters about the division of her estate. In June of that same year, he brought his family to his natal village. During their four months’ stay in Gruchy, Millet produced fourteen paintings and twenty drawings, and filled two sketchbooks, Sensier tells us. Woman Milking a Cow is based on one of those sketches. It has been suggested that Millet’s sister Emélie may have been his model.

The Barbizon school painters strongly influenced younger artists. For example, Alfred Sisley was in his late twenties when he traveled with his friend Pierre-Auguste Renoir to the village of Marlotte, which is also located beside the forest of Fontainebleau. His Women Going to the Woods (fig. 2) depicts women going into the forest to collect firewood, while a man is working the land. The colors and mood are subdued. Later active as an Impressionist, Sisley was in his youth influenced by the Barbizon school.
Gustave COURBET, Deer Running in the Snow, c. 1856-57, Oil on canvas
Alfred SISLEY, Women Going to the Woods, 1866, Oil on canvas