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

Woodcutter in the Forest and Young Woman taking Linens from a Shelf: a double-sided work

Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875)
Woodcutter in the Forest and Young Woman taking Linens from a Shelf: a double-sided work
signed 'J. F. Millet' (lower right)
oil on panel; on the verso, sanguine conte crayon
6 5/8 x 11¼ in. (16.8 x 28.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1850-1852
with Adrien Beugniet, Paris.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 22 May 1997, lot 223.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 3 November 1999, lot 29.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.

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Lot Essay

Jean-François Millet painted Woodcutter in the Forest shortly after his arrival in Barbizon, the small village outside the Forest of Fontainbleau. During the mid-19th century, the forest was home to many itinerant workers who made a living gathering firewood for nearby townspeople or preparing lumber and charcoal for sale throughout the Paris region. Woodcutter in the Forest is one of Millet's first successful efforts to shape a substantial painting around these characteristic laborers. Millet established both the subject matter and painterly style that would define his art for the next twenty-five years. As an object, Woodcutter in the Forest is very unusual, for on the back of the wooden panel Millet sketched a life study of a young woman removing linens from a closet. Together, the forest and household scenes provide a vivid measure of the breadth of Millet's creative interests during these vital years around 1850.

Woodcutter in the Forest is unrecorded in the Millet literature, but it can be securely dated to the early 1850s by its similarity in size and format to a group of distinctive drawings that were dubbed L'Épopée des Champs (The Epic of the Fields) by Millet's friend and biographer Alfred Sensier. These drawings, all roughly 6¼ x 9 inches, depict characteristic peasant tasks organized in horizontal compositions that balance a single figure foreground laborer with a related group working further in the background, similar to that of Woodcutter in the Forest. Both the left-handed woodsman chopping down the massive oak in the present work and his companions cross-cutting a large tree trunk in the background appear in numerous Millet drawings. A drawing of a single wood cutter in the Musée Grobet-Labadie, Marseille, probably provided the model for the foreground figure, while the men sawing in the background are in turn featured in Millet's most frequently illustrated forest painting, The Wood Sawyers in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. As Millet closed in on the subjects that most interested him, he would often experiment with moving the figures from the foreground to background (and vice versa) of similar compositions.

Millet frequently returned to a page of sketches to make another drawing on the verso; but Woodcutter in the Forest is the only known instance in which he used the back of a painted panel to start another composition. Study of a young Woman taking Linens from a Shelf on the reverse is especially interesting as a record of a real event quickly seized and recorded. Most of Millet's completed works of the early 1850s depict the more-or-less expected subjects of outdoor farm activities. But this sketch in bright sanguine crayon of a young housewife has an unexpected air of casual intimacy and is a reminder that Millet would go on later in the 1850s to become one of the most observant chroniclers of women's daily labors since the 17th century.

Stamped over the sanguine drawing is the label of Adrien Beugniet, a Paris dealer in antiques and modern paintings who was one of Millet's principal vendors during the early 1850s, although the prices he is known to have paid for Millet's first realist images were pathetically low.

We are grateful to Alexandra R. Murphy for her assistance in providing this catalogue note.

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