Oct 272007

“Shepherdess with Her Flock” demonstrates a compositional blueprint almost identical to that of the Angelus: a similar division of the canvas, where vast plain and skies occupy most of the foreground and background, protagonists at the front, a centralized vanishing point.

The theme of a solitary working peasant reoccurs also in the Knitter (see image below), as well as in the Sower. Millet’s schematic approach to facial features brings to mind the caricaturist style of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; both represent prototypes and both reserve a sympathetic eye for their subjects but, Bruegel clearly drifts towards celebration, whereas Millet towards melancholic poetry.

The girl appears to be clutching a rosary and praying — taking a break from shepherding to serve a different master. The sheep behind her may imply being a part of a religious flock, as obedient and subservient as the grazing animals. The flock counterbalances the girl, the entire  group producing the shape of a cross turned ninety degrees clockwise — reinforcing a religious metaphoric reading. Millet offers a smooth, obvious transition from the literal to the figurative.

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Shepherdess with Her Flock, 1863
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Downcast gaze, a trademark motif in Millet’s models, suggests a depressed state of mind, a weak, downtrodden existence. Downcast eyes can be a powerful and expressive psychological instrument: Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch baroque painter, deployed it quite often, depicting his actors, servants as well as masters, lowering their gaze and directing their attention to the task at hand. The Milkmaid and the Lacemaker are fine examples, as are the several scenes where refined ladies either read or write letters.

Even if we assume that Millet’s subjects could read and write, their placement against a bleak landscape backdrop (as opposed to Vermeer’s interiors) removes the possibility of leisure that these activities require. Millet’s peasants lack the calm and confidence of Vermeer’s models; they appear unable to transcend themselves through self-education. Instead, their transcendence becomes a cause to be taken up by the artist himself.

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The Knitter
Jean-Francois Millet
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The worried faces of these young women convey suffering and sadness, some sort of malaise or dissatisfaction, however suppressed or contained. They seem to find neither joy, nor peace in their work, which consumes them completely. It’s a state of  thorough hopelessness. In turn, the endlessness of the sky and the land emphasize the girl’s vulnerability, pushing her towards the viewers, almost forcing an intimate encounter. The overall image is programmed to evoke pity and sympathy.

The boundaries of the canvas, cutting abruptly both the plain and the sky, appear to be the only restraints of nature’s sheer expanses. Hence, the artist becomes the girl’s protector, generously fitting the frame — as if after searching for a perfect angle with a camera — to capture her safely and neatly with the flock, and tone down the effect of being rendered frighteningly insignificant by the elements. Here Millet’s sentimentality becomes the very method  by which he transcends his shepherdess, at least in art, to greener pastures.

*this article has been edited at a later date

  3 Responses to “Jean-Francois Millet: Shepherdess with Her Flock”

  1. Wondered if you would be able to help, I have a print of The Shepherdess as pictured above which is extremely old. It is in a frame which measures 17inches x 14.5 inches and the print measures 9.5inches x 7.75 inches. Top right hand corner says copyright – Eyre & Spottiswoode, Ltd, London. Bottom left hand corner sys The Louvre and the botton right hand corner says J. F. Millet. Would you e able to tell me if it is of any value?
    Many Thanks

  2. Hi, loved your interpretation of the painting. I think condemning the composition however cuts short the message Millet wanted to put across to the viewer. He was a realist painter, politically motivated, wanting to champion the cause of the lower class. To me the imbalance creates a real sense of unrest which only enhances the feeling of isolation, and the lack of visual points of interest make her life seem all the more dreary. Its in your face because the French bourgeoisie deserved to see how the other half lived in a very stark and real way and understand that the system they ran really put others at a disadvantage. I’m sure most of them really didn’t understand this and thought it was outrageous to paint a lowly peasant instead of their own rich gloriousness, but good on Millet for bringing these issues to light and making them feel uncomfortable!

  3. Almost every interpretation of “Shepherdess with her Flock” recognizes that she isn’t praying, she is knitting, a constant theme in Millet’s work.

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