National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Millet's "Saint Jerome Tempted" and
"Oedipus Taken Down from the Tree": 
The Discovery of a Lost Painting

by Bruce Laughton

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6 

Rather similar accusations of "scrubbing" and "trowelling on" the paint were made of Millet's Winnower shown at the Salon of 1848, (30) and again of his famous Sower at the Salon of 1850-1851. It is interesting that the same technical criticisms were made regardless of his shift in subject matter. The manner of paint handling was a matter of great concern to professional critics in the nineteenth century. But for Millet the period 1846-1850 was not only one of passionate romanticism in style (violent, brooding, even desperate, would be more aptly applied adjectives than "exuberant") but also one of very rapid transition in subject matter. The dreamy sensuality of his pastoral subjects and nudes explodes into the overt sexual tortures of Saint Jerome in 1846; this is followed by a dramatic treatment of the myth of 10 Oedipus's descent upon the world, rescued significantly by shepherds; during the Revolution of 1848 and Second Republic (towards which Millet's political affiliations were ambivalent) his first single figures of heroically proportioned French peasants at work occur, painted in an equally aggressive style. That tremendous control and reticence of brushwork which he was to acquire during the following decade, once he had found himself settled in Barbizon for good, outside the machinations of life in the capital city, may well have accompanied another psychological shift towards an alleged gloomy fatalism about which too much has been written. In terms of style alone, Millet's change from violence to control of method curiously foreshadows the swing from passionate expression to objective sensibility that characterizes the difference between the early and the mature work of Cézanne. But in the case of Millet, the artist was already an accomplished portrait painter before the period that we have been discussing; what set him off in this crisis of 1846, at the age of thirty one, must surely have been the circumstances of his personal life. Nor did his representation of naked ladies cease quite so abruptly as his earlier biographers implied. Occasional nymphs continued to appear after his removal to Barbizon, and as late as 1863 he was working on a Baigneuse (a rather chaste-looking bathing goose-girl) for his contract with the dealer Ennemond Blanc. (31) Although he evidently did not regard this as quite so important as some other productions, he priced it firmly at 800 francs. In that year nudes appear in other marginal activities of Millet's creative mind; for example, in early states of the heroic etching Le Départ pour le Travail a tiny nude is clearly seen on the bevelled margin, and another little fat one is hidden in the grass in the foreground of the print itself. (32) Ambivalent as always, it appears that Millet had a sense of humour about his temptations. Writing to Sensier in November to say that he was bringing the copper plate to Paris for Delâtre to print, he added "J'aurai aussi certaines taches à enlever, et il nous faudra peut-être l'aide d'un graveur qui soit un malin dans la profession." (33)

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