Millet and Rural France features a choice selection of rarely seen masterpieces from acclaimed Millet collection

First Millet exhibition in more than twenty-five years on view at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON, MA (August 31, 2010)—Jean-François Millet’s gift for capturing the arresting beauty of the natural world is the subject of Millet and Rural France, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), that invites visitors to rediscover one of the most important artists of the 19th century. On view September 4, 2010, through May 30, 2011, in the MFA’s Mary Stamas Gallery, the exhibition presents 46 works—many of them rarely seen in the past quarter century—including major pastels and drawings, as well as lively watercolors, sensitively handled etchings, and a powerful woodcut. All are drawn from the Museum’s renowned collection, one of the finest in the world. The exhibition is supported by the Cordover Exhibition Fund.

Millet and Rural France offers an intimate view of the work of Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), whose images of peasant life are among the most recognized and beloved in the history of art. The exhibition predominantly features works on paper and showcases Millet’s engaging scenes of rural France—primarily near Barbizon—for which he is best known. It highlights the artist’s draftsmanship and technical skills, in particular, his use of light and color—precursors to Impressionism. Examples include preparatory studies in conté crayon for Millet’s masterpiece, the painting Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (1850–53), which is on view in the exhibition. Among the drawings are Boaz (study for Harvesters Resting) (1851–53) and Perspective Studies (1851–53), which show how Millet planned and constructed the complex scene—from detailed figure studies and delicate sketches of gesture and expression, to broader outlines for the finished work. The artist’s sensitivity to the effects of light, especially as it depicts times of day, is seen in The Knitting Lesson (about 1858–60) (a recent gift, to be shown at the MFA for the first time) and Morning Toilette (about 1860–62), drawings of tranquil domestic settings that recall Johannes Vermeer and his use of soft light filtered through windowpanes. Millet’s deft drawing technique is seen in the gentle conté crayon portrait of his second wife, Madame Jean-François Millet (Catherine Lemaire) (about 1848–49)—one of the finest drawings in the Museum’s works on paper collection—and in his depictions of 19th-century France, from the beauty of rural surroundings in Farm in Normandy (1870–71), to the the harsh realities of peasant life in Faggot Gathers Returning from the Forest (about 1854), a scene of women burdened with heavy bundles of sticks (faggots).

Millet’s exquisite use of color is evident in his pastels of the French countryside, such as Twilight (about 1859–63), where sunlight, depicted in strokes of blue, white, and black pastel against buff paper, creates a glowing backdrop for a man and a woman seated on a donkey, recalling the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. The rural scene of a farmer working in his vineyard, Training Grape Vines (about 1860–64), features golden browns and soft blues, and the landscape Path through the Wheat (about 1867) highlights vibrant greens and reddish browns. Millet’s dramatic pastels Primroses and Dandelions (both 1867–68) illustrate not only his mastery of light and color, but also his ability to depict the close-up beauty of simple things.

In addition, Millet and Rural France highlights the artist’s work in other media: lush watercolors of French landscapes, such as Orchard Fence near Vichy, The Garden Fence (1867) and Road from Malavaux, near Cusset (1867); a red chalk drawing, Young Woman Spinning (1850–52); an unfinished woodcut, Man Turning over the Soil (1863); and several oils, including a compelling and rare Self-Portrait (about 1840–41); a striking image of rural life, Man Turning over the Soil (about 1847–50); and a still life of golden fruit, Pears (about 1862–66). Nine light-sensitive works will be rotated during the course of the exhibition.

“The dignity of living in harmony with nature is a major theme for Millet. This idea is relevant today, of course; witness the popularity of organic produce and community-supported agriculture. The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to view a number of the most beautiful images of rural life ever created,” said Helen Burnham, assistant curator in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, who organized the exhibition.

Millet was born October 4, 1814, in Gruchy, a small farming community in Normandy. Although he was raised to work his family’s land, the boy received a good education and when his talent for drawing became apparent, he was sent to study art—first in the nearest city, Cherbourg, then on scholarship to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied the work of the Old Masters from 1837–39. Disenchanted with city life, Millet eventually returned to the countryside in 1849, choosing to live in Barbizon near the Forest of Fontainebleau and the Plain of Chailly in north-central France. The artist spent the majority of his remaining years in that agricultural setting, documenting the humanity and majesty of hardworking people. His images depicting the nobility of peasants toiling in the field were sometimes seen as political statements about the inequities of the classes, especially given the societal changes in Europe occurring in the mid 1800s. By 1867, Millet had achieved long-overdue recognition of his talents, and he was invited to show his work at the Exposition Universelle. The following year, he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. Millet died on January 20, 1875.

Many of the works in the show have not been on view since the Museum presented its major Millet exhibition in 1984, Jean-Francois Millet: Seeds of Impressionism, which drew from the MFA’s collection of the artist’s work given to the Museum by several prominent Bostonians. The painter William Morris Hunt; the MFA’s first president, Martin Brimmer; and the industrialist Quincy Adams Shaw were three early collectors of Millet who recognized in his powerful images that he would become one of the most important artists of the 19th century. The Museum is now the largest repository, outside of France, of works by Millet, with arguably the most important collection of the artist’s pastels in the world.

Additional Information

A special tour of works from Millet and Rural France is on view at ww./exhibitions. For additional information, or for digital images, please contact Meg Blackburn at 617.369.3442 or

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its encyclopedic collection, which includes an estimated 450,000 objects. The Museum’s collection is made up of: Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. – 4:45 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 9:45 p.m. Admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period) is $20 for adults and $18 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission for students who are University Members is free, as is admission for youths 17 years of age and younger (during non-school hours). On school days until 3 p.m., admission for youths 7–17 is $7.50. No admission fee is required (after 4 p.m.) on Wednesdays, although voluntary donations are welcome. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For visitor information, visit the MFA website at or call 617.267.9300.