Battle with a Shield on a Lance
Prints and Drawings
Millet is regarded by art historians as one of the founding masters of French Realism and the predominant figure of the Barbizon School. His canvases painted in the 1850s and which became icons with astonishing speed – The Gleaners, The Sower and Angelus – recorded with unprecedented empathy a section of society which art had neglected until he appeared: the peasantry. His much-quoted assertion, “I was born a peasant and I remain one”, underscores his common reputation – who better to take as his central theme the depiction of peasant life than the son of a well-to-do peasant? However, he cannot be accounted for quite so simply: Millet was one of the best-read painters of his time, and in his childhood he took up reading with the same ardour that he did drawing. However, Millet’s drawing has still not received the recognition it deserves, despite his drawing skills having been very highly valued by such great nineteenth-century figures as Pissaro, Van Gogh, or his collector, another brilliant draughtsman, Degas.
Millet became preoccupied with drawing in 1849 when he moved with his family from cholera-stricken Paris to the fringe of forest in Barbizon. The change in lifestyle was for him the rediscovery of his village roots. The drawings based on the life of impoverished peasants in the area served as studies for large-scale paintings or were themselves fully-fledged works. It was the latter, bought by less wealthy collectors, which provided the income to maintain his large family. Maternal Solicitude was one of these finished drawings, and is complete in all details: Millet returned several times during his career to this theme, which may also have had an autobiographical aspect for a father of six children. Around 1855-1857, he produced an oil painting of the scene of almost the same size as the drawing. As well as many sketches produced for the painting in the Musée d’Orsay, there survive many drawings from after or around that time. It has not yet been established how the production of the Budapest drawing relates to the painting, but in terms of technique, it certainly bears a similarity to other drawings the artist completed about then. Throughout his life the central female character of Millet’s black chalk drawings was a Barbizon woman absorbed in her task. The female figure of Maternal Solicitude, through her distinctive, turban-like marmotte, is clearly rooted in the small village. The woman and the boy make up a solid, statue-like form, a unit without facial features strongly emphasised by black outlines. The spatiality of the mass is conveyed by faint or strong lines drawn vertically side by side, in varying density.
Millet diverged from the prescribed route of French academic painting when he abandoned the ceremonial treatment of dignified themes and, following the traditions of Dutch masters, depicted French peasants with the freshness of his own direct observation.
Text: © ZSUZSANNA GILA
This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.