Despite a marvelous show, Millet remains a minor painter

It's been a pleasure this past year to see one exhibition after another boost or restore the reputations of artists too long neglected or held in mild contempt. The list of painters who are once again respected and respectable runs the gamut from John F. Peto to William Merritt Chase, and includes more than half a dozen other previously downgraded 19th-century Americans.

None of these, however, suffered as dramatic a reversal of fortune as French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), creator of ''The Angelus'' and ''The Sower,'' and at one time considered one of the greatest of all 19th-century painters. His reputation deteriorated dramatically during the early 20th century , to the point where he was perceived by much of the art world as little more than a second-rate painter of sentimental and overly romanticized peasants, farms, and animals.

Times change, however, and Millet's reputation was recently deemed ready for reappraisal by a few scholars and museum officials, including Alexandra R. Murphy and Jan Fontein. They decided it was time for a comprehensive exhibition of his work which would fully and finally establish his quality and importance.

The result is ''Jean Francois Millet: Seeds of Impressionism,'' a 157-work, handsomely presented argument for Millet's case on view at the Museum of Fine Arts here. Although by no means a blockbuster show, word of its opening spread rapidly and sparked a great deal of interest.

Viewing it, unfortunately, was a disappointment. For all its importance as an exhibition, it failed to convince me that Millet is an underrated artist, and that it is now time to upgrade his reputation.

From what I saw, I must conclude that Millet simply was not as good as his major contemporaries, and that for all his seriousness, talent, and influence, he couldn't hold a candle to the likes of Corot, Degas, or Van Gogh.

I'm not at all happy about my conclusions, for I had hoped to add Millet's name to the growing list of artists who have proved themselves better than their reputations. And yet, there it was, laid out for all the world to see.

It made little difference overall that he was obviously an excellent draftsman, that he handled wash and watercolor deftly and with sensitivity, and that some of his late paintings actually had some life to them. For all that, it still added up to little more than extremely competent work with occasional flashes of brilliance. Nothing to sneer at, certainly, but also nothing to hold up as great.

Now I know he's an important art-historical figure, that he planted some of the seeds of Impressionism, and that he influenced the likes of Monet, Degas, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. I also am fully aware that he helped humanize 19 th-century painting by drawing his contemporaries' attention to everyday subjects as themes for art. And that, in fact, he produced some of the most famous images of his time. I have no argument with any of that, none at all, just as I have none with the exhibition as such.

How could I? It is an impressive, carefully researched, and fully documented show. Art historians and curators, in particular, will like and appreciate it. The public will be pleased to see the originals of paintings that are as familiar as Leonardo's ''Mona Lisa'' and ''Whistler's Mother.'' And artists will be impressed by the drawings, quite a few of the watercolors and pastels, and two or three of the late oils. It is altogether a worthwhile undertaking, and even has a catalog so complete I'll be referring to it for years to come.

No, I have no argument with the exhibition, only with most of its paintings. They themselves fail to convince me of Millet's first-rate status or of the ultimate depth of his creative realizations. All the scholarship in the world cannot hide the fact that, on the whole, his perception of reality, as articulated through his art, is cozy, sentimental, and skin-deep. He may have been the first to depict seriously the daily routines of French peasants, but he

managed to turn the gritty, backbreaking realities of peasant life into an overly neat, fairy-tale sort of world. He was an illustrator at heart, rather than a truly confrontational artist, a fact made all the more apparent if his work is compared with Van Gogh's.

I would suggest that Millet was a minor painter with excellent ideas and good intentions; that he had a fairly strong talent for drawing which permitted him to give form to his ideas to the extent he could; and that he was capable of occasional flashes of painterly brilliance toward the end of his life. Outside of that, he was painfully uninteresting as a painter, muddy as a colorist - except when working in watercolor or pastel, and ultimately lacking in true character and grit as an artist.

For every excellent work - such as ''End of the Hamlet of Gruchy II'' (1866), ''Farmyard in Winter'' (1868), ''Peasant Girl With Two Cows'' (1863), the lithograph version of ''Sower'' (1851), or most of the small, lovely landscape watercolor sketches - the viewer is subjected to many that are hardly alive and that can only marginally be viewed as art of significance.

Much of the problem in viewing Millet's work results from our awareness of the great art that followed his. Without Degas, Manet, Daumier, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and the rest to be compared against, Millet would undoubtedly stand higher in our estimation today. But that's only an excuse. Millet simply wasn't a first-rate painter. That's the bottom line, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 1. A final, noteworthy fact: The vast majority of the works on display belong to the museum itself - atlhough ''The Angelus'' was borrowed from the Louvre in Paris, and a few other pictures are on loan from private collectors.

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