Shepherdess and Her Flock by Jean-François Millet (French, 1814 – 1875) about 1864-1865. Black chalk and pastel, 36.4 × 47.5 cm (14 5/16 × 18 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum

“I am a peasant peasant(I am a peasant of a peasant), the artist Jean-François Millet once declared. Born into a farming family in northern France, he amazed the Parisian art world with the candid depiction of agricultural labor in oil paintings which he exhibited at the semi-annual Salon sponsored by the state in the middle of the 19th century.

To his contemporaries, Millet must have seemed a rather unlikely figure to revive the use of pastels – dry sticks of vibrant, velvety color, which had been the medium of choice for aristocratic portraiture in the 18th century but had fallen into disuse around the time of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, in the 1850s and 1860s, Millet produced a large body of pastels, often taking up in this soft and powdery medium the same subjects he had treated in uncompromising oil paintings.

An intimate and targeted exhibition, Pastel peasants: millet and the revival of pastel will explore the circumstances of this artist’s transition to pastel around 1860 and present a selection of works by pastel artists of the next generation who were inspired by his example: Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Giovanni Segantini, Léon Lhérmitte.

Millet won a scholarship to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but failed to find his way as an academic artist. In the mid-1840s he began painting scenes of farmhands winnowing grain, tending sheep, and sowing seeds, often on a large scale traditionally reserved for subjects from classical mythology or the Bible. His oil technique became increasingly bold, with thick, dark paint applied like “trowel scrapings”, as one reviewer put it.

The apparent crudeness of Millet’s subject matter and style shocked contemporary audiences, who often suspected that he harbored a radical political agenda. But from the 1850s, his work nevertheless began to sell, thanks to an arrangement with Alfred Sensier, dealer, critic and art historian who provided Millet with materials and a regular income in exchange for his paintings. Sensier particularly admired eighteenth-century pastels, and he encouraged Millet to produce small, bright, salable works in this medium. Following Sensier’s advice, the artist sees immediate commercial results. Eager to monopolize the market, the collector Emile Gavet ordered no less than ninety pastels from Millet.

Millet died in 1875, and Gavet dispersed his extensive collection of pastels at public auction shortly thereafter. The critical and commercial success of the business encouraged other artists to try their hand at pastel, which quickly gained wide acceptance, growing from a medium used primarily for sketching purposes to one commonly used for artwork. fully realized independent. Manufacturers of artists’ supplies now offered a wide range of paper and even canvas mediums specially designed for pastels, and in 1880 the Salon designated a room for the medium’s work.

Pastels also played an important role in the Impressionist movement, which was officially launched in 1874 and helped set the course of European painting for the next quarter century. Almost all of the major Impressionists experimented with pastel, whose brilliant colors and potential for bold graphic treatment matched the bold, independent spirit of the group. Due to their portability, pastels have proven useful for working outside— in the open air, often in the countryside — as the Impressionist landscape painters preferred to do.

Bringing together pastels by Pissarro, Sisley and some of their lesser-known contemporaries — Léon Augustin Lhermitte and Giovanni Segantini — the exhibition traces Millet’s defining influence on the generation of pastel artists that followed him.

“Pastels, with their velvety luster and aristocratic associations, may seem an unlikely choice of medium for depicting rural life and work,” said Emily Beeny, Associate Curator of Drawings at the Getty Museum and curator of the exhibition. . “But by exploring the use of pastels by Millet and his followers, this small, focused exhibition encourages us all to consider how artists’ choice of medium shapes our understanding of their subject matter.”

Pastel Farmers: Millet and the revival of pastel will be on view from October 29, 2019 to May 10, 2020 at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Additional information is available at


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