Haystacks: Autumn by Jean-Francois Millet

“The most joyful thing I know is the peace, the silence that one enjoys in the woods or on the tilled lands.”

Haystacks were a popular subject in the late 1800’s and many prominent European painters, like Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Alfred Sisley, Gustave Caillebotte, August Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh used this mainstay of provincial life.

In the mid 1870’s Millet received a commission from a wealthy Alsatian industrialist Frederick Hartmann to create several compositions depicting the four seasons. The haystacks clearly represent autumn – the season that is celebrated by many cultures and in many art forms. In Millet’s compositions the gleamers already left and the bare fields are left to the sheep and goats to graze. Beyond the haystacks lie the plain of Chailly and the rooftops of Barbizon. The work has the loose, sketch like execution characteristic of Millet’s late style: patches of the dark lilac-pink ground color are deliberately exposed, and the underdrawing is visible, particularly in the outlines of the haystacks and the sheep. A lone figure stands in the shadows of the haystacks. Featureless, he seems to take refuge from the impending storm in the stacks. What makes Jean-Francois Millet’s painting different from the other, better known works by Monet and Van Gogh, is the multi-plane composition, the scale of the stacks and the dramatic effect achieved by juxtaposing the ominous storm clouds and the sun-drenched fields. Millet is really the only one to imbue his quotidian subject with so much contrast and tension.

See Millet’s The Gleaners

The painting has a striking affect when you first see it. Hanging in the European Paintings wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York it is the one object in the room that demands your immediate and uninterrupted attention. It’s not a large painting, compared to some of the works in the neighboring galleries, but something about the compositions and the way Millet painted the light and the haystacks makes it most captivating.

Also in the slideshow is Millet’s famous The Gleaners completed in 1857. The painting is in the permanent collection at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

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