At the same time that Claude Monet had gone north of Paris to Argenteuil to seek to capture on canvas the discordant movements of an industrializing village, Jean-François Millet was completing a lifetime’s work south of Paris, near Fontainebleau.1 Millet settled in Barbizon after the Revolution of 1848 and until his death in 1875 devoted himself to painting and drawing rural life. Describing himself as ‘an out-and-out peasant’, this son of devout, comfortable landholders from near Cherbourg in Normandy left a rich and evocative legacy of images of labour, landscape and family life. The peasant household’s routines of spinning, caring for livestock, harvesting, baking bread, and carting water and wood are captured in images which resonate with respect for rural toil. Above all, Millet’s paintings suggest the continuity of the routines of rural life and are in sharp contrast to the images of changing, bustling and fractious urban centres left by Monet. Millet insisted that his desire was to ‘paint nothing that was not the result of an impression directly received from nature’; however, apart from periods in the Auvergne and Normandy, almost all of these decades were spent in Barbizon, where he painted from memory. The central problem in the complex relationship between art and society is in his case especially acute: did Millet simply detail the rural world around him, or did this deeply religious and increasingly conservative man construct an imaginary world, rural France as he wished it to remain?
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