Ruth and I were lucky. We had some time at the end of our recent trip to see the current show at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Called “Millet and Modern Art”, it’s being recognized as one of the best shows in America. Christie’s, the art auction house, has listed it as one of the must-see exhibitions of 2020 on christies.com. Ruth and I almost missed it. This museum’s winter 2020 magazine calls its show groundbreaking because it features, for the first time, the works and legacy of an important French painter of the 19th century, Jean-François Millet. The good news is that this show is not just about his talent. It’s also about the artists he influenced, like Vincent Van Gogh. There are several Van Gogh’s in this exhibit that, side by side with Millet’s works, show how much this Dutch painter was indebted to Millet. The bad news is that this show will close on May 17, 2020, and will not go to another museum. You must travel to St. Louis if you want to see several masterworks that have never traveled to America because the museums that own them, like the famous d’Orsay in Paris, have not allowed them to go abroad.
Millet specialized in nudes and peasant life. His most well-known painting is called “The Gleaners”. It shows 3 women bending over a harvested field and picking up by hand what the reapers missed or let fall to the ground. They are dignified, almost like working royalty doing a job that kings and queens would never do. It was painted by Millet in mid 19th century France just after the French Revolution when 75% of the population worked in rural agriculture. Millet’s constant themes were sowing seeds, reaping what has been planted, and gleaning what dropped. There are several Van Gogh reapers like the one above also in this exhibit that features several unknown artists who imitated Millet. One of my favorites was Félicien Rops, a Belgian artist whose eerie “Satan Sowing Tares” is on display. There is also a Millet painting of gleaners in St. Louis, but it’s not the famous large one now owned by the d’Orsay. It’s a 15 by almost 12 inch version from the Yamanashi Perfectural in Japan. One of the other stars of this show is Millet’s “The Angelus”, which shows a man and a woman who have been digging up potatoes saying an evening prayer. Because his paintings of rural peasant life were very popular, “The Angelus” sold for a higher price than any other painting at a 19th century auction. It remains arresting. I’m surprised the d’Orsay let it travel to America for this show. Millet, who had 8 siblings and was the father of 9 children, was born in Normandy but lived in Barbizon southwest of Paris from 1849 until his death in 1875. The French still consider him a national hero, but he is lesser known elsewhere. This is the first major international show of his works.
Painters like Winslow Homer liked Millet and imitated him, but Vincent Van Gogh called his “Father Millet”. While a patient in a hospital in Arles in 1889-90, Van Gogh produced 20 copies of Millet’s work. Van Gogh painted 2 starry night paintings. One is the famous Met version with its swirling light-filled stars seen on the umbrella just above that’s for sale in a gift shop at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The other is in this exhibit and has traveled from the d’Orsay to the American Midwest for this show. It shows star light reflected on the Rhone River behind a peasant couple. In this exhibit it is placed next to a less flamboyant Millet starry night that is worth seeing for contrast and Van Gogh’s influence on him.
If you really like Vincent Van Goghs, to see this exhibit is reason enough to travel to St. Louis. If that is not possible, Yale University Press has published an extensive 208 page catalogue/overview of this subject and show with 180 images. It clearly demonstrates how Millet influenced many artists, including several impressionists like Monet, who followed him.