From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Jean-François Millet (October 4, 1814 – January 20, 1875) was a French painter and one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. He is noted for his scenes of peasant farmers. He can be categorized as part of the movement termed "naturalism", but also as part of the movement of "realism". He is noted for such paintings as The Gleaners and The Angelus.
Born in the village of Gruchy, in Gréville-Hague (Normandy), Millet moved to Paris in 1838. He received his academic schooling with Paul Dumouchel, and with Jérome Langlois in Cherbourg. After 1840 he turned away from the official painting style and came under the influence of Honoré Daumier. In 1849 he withdrew to Barbizon to apply himself to painting many, often poetic, peasant scenes.
Millet was an important source of inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, particularly during his early period. Millet and his work are mentioned many times in Vincent's letters to his brother Theo. Millet's late landscapes would serve as influential points of reference to Claude Monet's paintings of the coast of Normandy; his structural and symbolic content influenced Georges Seurat as well.
Millet is the main protagonist of Mark Twain's play Is He Dead? (1898), in which he is depicted as a struggling young artist who fakes his death to score fame and fortune. Most of the details about Millet in the play are fictional.
The Angelus was reproduced frequently in the 19th and 20th centuries. Salvador Dalí was fascinated by this work, and wrote an analysis of it, The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet. Rather than seeing it as a work of spiritual peace, Dalí believed it held messages of repressed sexual aggression. Dalí was also of the opinion that the two figures were praying over their buried child, rather than to the Angelus. Dalí was so insistent on this fact that eventually an X-ray was done of the canvas, confirming his suspicions: the painting contains a painted-over geometric shape strikingly similar to a coffin. However, it is unclear whether Millet changed his mind on the meaning of the painting, or even if the shape actually is a coffin.