A revolutionary traditionalist

It was a perfect summer Saturday in the Berkshires, the kind of day that has attracted hordes from Boston and New York for generations to this western Massachusetts county known for quaint towns, modest green mountains, and cool breezes.

But in Williamstown, Mass., a picture postcard come to life, the hordes (perversely, it would seem) were headed inside to look at artworks showing (even more perversely?) French rural landscapes.

For the moment, it seemed, art had trumped reality.

But then who could blame the crowds that packed the galleries of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute to commune with 80 works by Jean-Franois Millet (1814-1875) assembled from more than 30 museums and collectors around the world?

Of the four paintings that have traditionally defined Millet - "The Gleaners," "The Sowers," "Man with a Hoe," and "The Angelus" - only the latter isn't on display at the Clark, making this the most comprehensive look at the 19th-century French master in the United States since 1984.

That wasn't the original idea of curator Alexandra Murphy, a Millet expert. She had wanted to show how his later landscapes, his pastels, watercolors, and drawings, were his underappreciated crowning achievement.

Instead, viewers get that and more: a chance to see the iconic paintings in the context of his other works. "The Sower," for example, is shown next to later, smaller, less dramatic pastel versions of the same scene.

Millet was both a "revolutionary" and "grounded in tradition," says associate curator James Ganz, who piloted me through the crowds on a tour. The love of light in his latter pastels prefigure Impressionism ("Millet is father Millet, counselor and mentor in everything for young artists," Van Gogh said).

The mid-career paintings are often misinterpreted as depicting idealized rural life as the Industrial Revolution sent droves of peasants to the cities. Instead, they are far more complex and political. Produced just after the European revolutions of 1848 (remember the students who barricaded the streets of Paris in "Les Miserables"?), they were called brutal and grotesque, outraging and even frightening high society. Were these peasants about to head to Paris, hoes and rakes in hand?

*'Jean-Franois Millet: Drawn Into the Light' is at the Clark through Sept. 6. It moves to Amsterdam in October, and (minus 'The Gleaners') to the Frick museum in Pittsburgh in February. Send comments to entertainment@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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