Groundbreaking Exhibition Shows What A Major Influencer Millet Was On Modern Art's Trajectory

  • January 16, 2020 14:10

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Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875; “The Angelus”, 1857-1859; oil on canvas; 21 7/8 x 26 inches; Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France 2020.28; Photo: Patrice Schmidt, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890; “Evening: The Watch (after Millet)”, 1889; oil on canvas; 29 5/16 × 36 13/16 inches; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) 2020.34

‘Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí’ creates an alternative narrative for the history of modern art.

Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875; “Self-Portrait”, 1840-1841; oil on canvas; 25 × 18 1/2 inches; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution 2020.49

The Saint Louis Art Museum next month will open “Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí,” an exhibition that examines, for the first time, the international legacy of the 19th-century French painter, Jean-François Millet.

Millet (1814-1875) was a pioneer in developing innovative imagery of rural peasantry, landscapes and nudes, and his work had a deep impact on later generations of artists. In the late-19th century, he was arguably the best-known modern painter, and his works sold for the highest prices of any modern pictures at auction. Today, he is less well known, and “Millet and Modern Art” explores Millet’s original importance and the international range of artists he influenced.

The exhibition is organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. It opens in St. Louis on Feb. 16 and runs through May 17.

“This groundbreaking exhibition rediscovers Millet’s critical role in the birth and development of modern art,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “It will be a visually stunning treat for our visitors and it is an important contribution to art historical scholarship.”

Masterworks on loan from many of the world’s greatest museums situate Millet’s imagery within the context of work by a wide, international range of artists whom he influenced. Among the latter are the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh; the Frenchmen Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Claude Monet; the Italian Giovanni Segantini; the American Winslow Homer; the German Paula Modersohn-Becker; the Norwegian Edvard Munch and the Spaniard Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Dali, Spanish, 1904–1989; “Meditation on the Harp”, c. 1933; oil on canvas; 26 1/4 x 18 1/2 inches; Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL (USA) 2019 2020.115; © 2019 Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, Artists Rights Society

Rural labor was always an important theme for Millet, and the exhibition looks at imagery such as the sower, the reaper, and the gleaner, in which the artist articulated his sympathy for the marginalized rural poor and suggested larger metaphorical narratives of birth and death. Millet’s work had a particularly deep impact on Van Gogh, who referred to him as “father Millet.”

The exhibition includes several iconic images by Van Gogh, including two important paintings of “The Sower” and the Musée d’Orsay’s rarely lent “Starry Night”, which predates van Gogh’s painting of the same title in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Among the American artists represented in the show is Homer, whose “The Bright Side” reinterprets Millet’s imagery through the lens of race.

In the late 19th century, Millet’s drawings and pastels were often seen as more formally radical than his paintings.

The show includes important groupings of works on paper, demonstrating their impact on artists such as Georges Seurat. There is also a body of Millet’s little-known nude imagery that deeply affected Edgar Degas.

Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875; “Starry Night”, c. 1850-1865; oil on canvas; 25 3/4 x 32 inches; Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund 2020.44
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890; “Starry Night”, 1888; oil on canvas; 28 9/16 × 36 1/4 inches; Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France 2020.27; Photo: Hervé Lewandowski, © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The exhibition emphasizes the significance of Millet’s landscape paintings that increasingly dominated his practice in the last decade of his life. His marine imagery is paired with that of his fellow Norman, Monet, who was also fascinated by the sea. An important loan in this section is “Spring,” a late masterpiece in which Millet showcases his ability to capture light from a passing rainbow. This is related to imagery by the American George Inness.

The final and culminating section of the exhibition centers on Millet’s “Angelus,” one of the most expensive modern paintings of the late 19th century and an important national symbol of France to this day. The show includes related work by artists including Munch, the Russian Natalia Goncharova, and an important group of pictures by Dalí, who was obsessed by Millet’s “Angelus.”

The exhibition is co-curated by Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Maite van Dijk, senior curator at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

ean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875; “Man with a Hoe”, 1860-1862; oil on canvas; 32 1/4 × 39 1/2 inches; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2020.41
Winslow Homer, American, 1836–1910; “The Bright Side”, 1865; oil on canvas; 12 3/4 × 17 inches; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd 2020.55

“Millet and Modern Art” is organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, with exceptional support from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The exhibition is presented in St. Louis by the Betsy and Thomas Patterson Foundation. Additional support is provided by the E. Desmond Lee Family Endowment for Exhibitions; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the National Endowment for the Arts; and Christie’s.

“Millet and Modern Art” is accompanied by a 208-page, fully illustrated catalogue edited by Kelly and van Dijk and published by Yale University Press. Other contributors include Nienke Bakker, senior curator of paintings at the Van Gogh Museum, and Abigail Yoder, research assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Jean-François Millet, French, 1814–1875; “The Flight Into Egypt”, 1859-1869; black and brown conté crayon, pen, black ink and traces of black pastel, over gray washes, on cream wove paper, edge-mounted on laminated woodpulp board; 12 1/2 × 16 inches; Art Institute of Chicago, The Regenstein Collection 2020.48
Georges Seurat, French, 1859–1891; “Peasants”, 1881-1884; Conté crayon; 9 3/4 × 12 7/16 inches; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876-1967), 1967 2020.91

The museum will offer a scholarly symposium and an array of exhibition-related programming throughout the run of “Millet and Modern Art.” During the exhibition’s opening weekend, the museum will present “Millet and His Modernity: From Van Gogh to Dalí,” a lecture by Kelly about why Millet’s work was seen as so groundbreaking, both during his lifetime and in the decades after his death. The Feb. 16 lecture begins at 2 pm in the museum’s Farrell Auditorium; tickets are $5.

Information about those lectures, gallery talks and family programs can be found at

Tags: european art

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