During the late 1850s, finished drawings became an extremely important part of Jean-François Millet's artistic production. Despite some official recognition and success at the Salon exhibitions early in the decade, by 1857 with his Gleaners (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and 1859 with Peasant Woman Pasturing her Cow (Musée de l'Ain, Bourg-en-Bresse), Millet was being regularly criticized for the political challenge of his paintings and chastized for seeing only the ugly and brutish in the French countryside and its residents. Although the rebukes had more to do with the political situation in Paris than with Millet's art, he found it increasingly difficult to sell any paintings. His drawings, which could be sold more cheaply and for which he had begun to build a small private following, became the principal means of support for his growing family.
Two Shepherdesses and their Flock was drawn by Millet around 1854-58 and reflects both his long-standing interest in the lives of the shepherdesses working on the outskirts of Barbizon, and his on-going effort to develop a distinctly personal drawing style suitable to the rural subject matter that so absorbed his attentions.
Millet had grown up in the bocage country of northern Normandy, where sheep and cows grazed unattended in the hedgerow-enclosed fields, requiring the attention of their owners only when being moved from field to field (see lot 168) or when sheep were brought in for shearing. In Barbizon, a very different farming economy defined by broad open wheat fields required that both cows and sheep be kept to the fallow lands or wooded edges of the great Forest of Fontainebleau. For most of the families among whom Millet had been living since 1849, it fell to a younger daughter to spend endless hours, every day, tending the family's small flocks or solitary cow, foregoing not only schooling but also much of the social interaction of work closer to home. Millet was already the father of three daughters by 1854 (with a fourth born in 1856); and as an artist always sympathetic to the work and the lives of the women in his own family and the surrounding community, he studied the Barbizon shepherdesses with great interest, his growing understanding of their customs bringing many insights into the structure and problems of his adopted homeland. In drawings and paintings before Two Shepherdesses and their Flock, Millet captured the boredom and isolation of their long days, the chilling winds and burning sun, the day-dreaming and knitting that measured their lives. Two Shepherdesses and their Flock introduces a more appealing note, with two young village girls sharing confidences while a dog watches their blended flocks. The shepherdess who sits on the ground, her knee clasped in her hands, appears to offer advice or counsel to her more demure companion sitting on the embankment, whose wistful downward gaze suggests faraway thoughts.
Millet was a great draftsman before he became a great painter, and it had always been his practice to prepare his paintings with numerous compositional sketches and many careful studies from life. As drawing for its own sake became crucially important to him in the mid-1850s, he experimented with numerous methods of mark-making and shading, exploiting the texturing flexibility of the black crayons that were his favorite medium. The combination of careful figure studies in Two Shepherdesses and their Flock with quicker, more cursory shaping of the milling sheep and rapid shading for the woodland background reflects both Millet's natural interests and his determination to establish a lively style suitable to his subjects.
A study for the shepherdess seated on the embankment belongs to the Boymans Museum, Rotterdam; and a second version of Two Shepherdesses and their Flock, similar in size and detail, belongs to the Canton Art Institute, Canton, Ohio.
We would like to thank Alexandra R. Murphy for confirming the authenticity of this lot and for researching and preparing this catalogue entry.