The theme of a young peasant woman tending a solitary cow first appears in Millet's oeuvre in connection with a state commission that Millet received in 1852. Landless peasants who were not eligible to pasture their animals with the community herd were forced by changing land usage laws to accompany their grazing animals all day, to prevent them from straying into a farmer's fields . Young girls from struggling families, for whom a single cow was often their only economic stake in the farming community, were usually charged with tending these animals, as the young girls' schooling was little valued.  This was a rural theme without precedent in artistic tradition, and it had serious political ramifications in a country that was ignoring the degree of poverty rampant in rural communities during the 1850's.
At the same time, as Paysanne et sa vache au bord d'un étang indicates, it was a theme that conveyed a superficial aura of rural peace and calm, and it allowed Millet to recognize the complexities of rural existence in changing times. It is a subject Millet returned to at several points during is career in drawings and in paintings (there are two painted versions in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) as well as a pastel version in a German collection.               
Credit:  Dr. Alexandra Murphy, 1995


Jean-Francois Millet was an artist who occupied the very core of the Barbizon movement.  As he undoubtedly would have wished, his pictures have always taken precedence over his life, and the facts of his unremarkable biography are not well-known.  Born into a moderately successful land-owning family in Gruchy in 1814, he went as a youth to study in Cherbourg with a local portrait painter and later with Lang1ois, a student of Gros.  His last formal instruction was in Paris, where he worked in the studio of the history painter Paul Delaroche from 1837 until1840.  In 1841 he returned to Cherbourg to set himself up as a portrait painter and he married for the first time.  As it did through much of his career, success eluded Millet in these early years.  His young wife Pauline’s death of consumption in 1844 was probably the deciding factor in his move to Le Havre in 1845 and later the same year back to Paris in the company of Catherine Lemaire.  Catherine was a domestic servant who could neither read nor write, but she remained Millet’s companion, bearing him nine children between 1846 and 1863; they were married in a civil ceremony in 1853 and in a religious one in 1875, seventeen days before the artist’s death.


 In Paris, Millet established friendships with men who were to become his partners in the movement to change the way the world looked at landscape—future colleagues such as Troyon, Diaz, Jacque, Daumier and Rousseau.  With their help he began to sell a few paintings, and found his first officially recognized success.  Following the Revolution of 1848, Millet became increasingly interested in peasant scenes and types with a stoic, almost biblical, realism.  Although Millet was not a committed revolutionary, his images from this time on reflected a true concern for contemporary problems and became increasingly somber.  The proceeds from a state commission freed Millet to leave Paris in 1849 for Barbizon, where he joined his new friends and devoted himself to peasant life and rural scenes.  During the next few years he painted some of his best  known images, including Harvesters (1849), The Sower (1850) (exhibited in the same Salon with Courbet’s Stonebreakers and Burial at Ornans) and Harvesters Resting (1853), but financial success did not follow.  He had, by this time, numerous American admirers.  One of them, the Boston painter William Morris Hunt, visited Barbizon in 1851 and wrote of Millet: “I found him working in a cellar, three feet underground, his pictures mildewing with the dampness, as there was no floor.  I bought as much of his work as I could.”  This purchase included The Sawer for $60.  His lifelong friend and supporter Alfred Sensier gave Millet canvas and paint in exchange for works of art, and Rousseau purchased several works.  Through the 1850s Millet’s reputation slowly grew and as his market developed he was finally able to feel confident in the path he had chosen.


 The Gleaners and The Angelus (both 1857) and Man with a Hoe (1863) demonstrated Millet’s continuing awareness of the plight of the peasant, but from the mid-60s onward he focused increasingly upon landscape, and he devoted much of himself to the remarkable pastels commissioned by the wealthy Parisian architect, Emile Gavet.  He became firmly established and financially independent with the exhibition of his work at the 1867 Exposition Universelle and receipt of the Legion d’honneur in 1868.


Millet’s greatness lies in his singular ability to exploit his traditional French artistic background and values in the service of such untraditional subjects as peasant workers and their fields.  He endowed these figures and landscapes with a solidity and monumentality that guaranteed them a pivotal place in the history of art.


Museum Collections Include: 

Art Museum Bern, Switzerland; Museum of Fine Art, Bordeaux; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Queensland National Art Gallery and Museum, Brisbane, Australia; Museum of Fine Art, Budapest; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center, Chapel Hill, NC; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Taft Museum, Cincinatti, OH; Denver Art Museum, CO; Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh; Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY; Hendrik Willem Mesdag National Museum, Hague, Netherlands; City and Land Art Galleries of Low Saxony, Hannover, Germany; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; National Gallery, London; Malden Public Library, MA; Grobet-Labadie Museum, Marseille; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN; State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Ball State University Art Gallery, Muncie, IN; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Chrysler Museum, Norfolk; Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA; Snite Museum of Art at University of Notre Dame, IN; Paine Art Center, Oshkosh, WI; Kroller-Muller National Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Musee du Louvre, Paris; Musee d’Orsay, Paris; Petworth House, Great Britain; John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; Phoenix Art Museum, AZ; Princeton Art Museum, NJ; Brigham Young University Fine Arts Collection, Provo; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, NY; National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; Toledo Museum of Art, OH; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach; Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA; The Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.