Girl carrying water, 1856

Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)

  • Oil on Canvas, 41 x 33
  • On loan from Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

A peasant woman carries two buckets of water from the well to her house. Millet also painted a canvas of this scene that is more than a metre high. It was a characteristic of Realism to present such a simple subject on this large scale. Realist painters such as Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet and Jules Breton depicted the daily life of the agricultural labourer. They focused on small, insignificant details in the landscape and portrayed poor peasants in an almost heroic style.

Millet belongs to the Barbizon School, a group of painters who chiefly painted landscapes. However, he was the only one of the group whose main preoccupation was the depiction of people.

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In his review of Girl carrying water the French art critic Théophile Thoré remarked that Millet had done everything to avoid emotion in the scene. Van Gogh, however, took a different view: he regarded Millet as a deeply religious man who endowed the peasants in his paintings with a biblical air. So he consciously chose to model his pictures on those Millet works which featured a relatively high religious or emotional overtone, such as The Sower.

Van Gogh

Millet’s work made a deep impression on Van Gogh who regarded the painting of figure pieces as his highest aspiration. During his Dutch years in particular he modelled himself on the French master. In 1880 he started to make copies of prints after Millet, and he also remained loyal to Millet’s example in his later work. For example, Van Gogh painted diverse variations on Millet‘s theme of the sower, while The potato eaters is also clearly inspired by the French artist. However, the style of both painters is very different for Van Gogh only borrowed his subjects from Millet.

Misunderstood artist

Van Gogh cherished his copy of the first major biography of Millet, published in 1881. This work portrayed his idol as a misunderstood artist whose life could be compared with that of the peasants he painted. Van Gogh identified heavily with this romanticised view of Millet. During his time in the Saint-Rémy asylum the unstable artist found considerable solace in making copies after Millet.

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