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Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875)
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Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875)

The sleeping seamstress

Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875)
The sleeping seamstress
signed 'F. Millet' (lower left)
oil on canvas
18 x 15 in. (45.7 x 38.1 cm.)
Painted in 1844-1845.
Lottery of the Société des amis des arts du Havre, Le Havre, 1845.
Won at the above lottery by M. Vanner, Le Havre, 1845.
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 24 March 1876, lot 35.
M. Mégard Sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 18 February 1884, lot 10.
Collection of Hugh Blaker, Isleworth.
Thence by descent to Miss Blaker, Isleworth.
Her sale; Christie's, London, 5 November 1948, lot 41.
Acquired at the above sale by Mr. Dent, London.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's New York, 23 May 1990, lot 27.
A. Sensier, La vie et l'oeuvre de J.-F. Millet, Paris 1881, p. 84.
L. Soullié, Peintures, aquarelles, pastels, dessins de Jean-François Millet relevés dans les catalogues de ventes de 1849 à 1900, Paris 1900, p. 32.
A. Reverdy, L'École de Barbizon: évolution du prix des tableaux de 1850 à 1960, Paris 1973, p. 127.
Special Notice

VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 15% on the buyer's premium

Lot Essay

Jean-François Millet painted Sleeping Seamstress in 1845, as he was preparing to leave behind the provincial world of Cherbourg and Le Havre to throw himself onto the highly competitive stage of the Paris art world. Choosing one of the most commonplace tasks of a housewife's day, the making and mending of her family's clothes, and using his pretty new mistress, Catherine Lemaire (later his wife), as his model, Millet set his art on the path of everyday life and real experience that would define his place in the gathering Realist movement. Sleeping Seamstress is the first of a long line of paintings of village housewives and country shepherdesses whom Millet observed as they moved quietly about their lives.

In the bright colours woven through Sleeping Seamstress and especially in the play of the complementary tints that balance the red-orange of the young woman's headscarf and softly flushed cheeks with the skillfully articulated turquoise stripes of her skirt, Millet was building on the achievements of several years spent as a portraitist and painter of small, pretty genre scenes. By 1845, Millet confidently controlled a palette of colours distinctly his own and a range of painterly skills that allowed him to compose increasingly complex pictures enlivened with light effects and brushwork of great appeal. With Sleeping Seamstress, Millet joined those skills to subject matter that spoke to his deepest ambitions.

Millet had grown up on a small Normandy farm, with every expectation that farming would be his life's work. When artistic talents won him access to the opportunites of Paris, Millet railed against the artificialities of the capital and was particularly pained by what he considered the theatrical feebleness of most contemporary painting. For his own art, he sought encouragement in the realistic subject matter of seventeenth-century Holland and, perhaps surprisingly, in eighteenth-century French interpretations of those Dutch examples. Millet's groundbreaking Sleeping Seamstress echoes scenes of housemaids idly daydreaming while pots boil over or cats spill milk pitchers, but corrects the silliness of those works by focusing clearly on the tired model's diligence and the lateness of the hour conveyed by the glowing lamp. Millet's admiration for his hard-working mother and grandmother, who had encouraged his artistic career, underlies all his scenes of women deeply engrossed in household tasks. From 1845, when Catherine Lemaire joined her fate to his, she became the inspirational model for numerous sewing and knitting scenes. Her features can be clearly seen in Sleeping Seamstress and again in an 1850's Barbizon drawing La Ravaudeuse (fig. 1). Millet's final composition of a sewing housewife, Woman Sewing by Lamplight (Frick Collection, New York) was probably posed by one of his and Catherine's daughters.

Sleeping Seamstress was offered as a prize in a lottery in Le Havre, just as Millet prepared to move back to Paris. Perhaps the public exposure offered by such an event prompted Millet finally to commit himself to the themes of work and real life that would shape the central core of his mature art.

We would like to thank Alexandra Murphy for writing the above catalogue note.

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