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

Le Passage des oies sauvages

Jean-François Millet (French, 1814-1875)
Le Passage des oies sauvages
signed 'J. F. Millet' (lower right)
pastel and crayon noir on light gray-blue paper, glued at extreme edges and stretched over board
14 ¾ x 11 ¾ in. (37.5 x 29.8 cm.)
Executed circa 1862-63.
Philippe-Auguste Jourde (1816-1905), Paris, before 1887.
P. Guyotin, Paris, by 1889.
with Galerie Barbazanges, Paris.
with Dr. Christoph Bernoulli, Basel, by 1962.
with Drs. Fritz and Peter Nathan, Zürich.
Anonymous sale; Koller, Zurich, 22-24 March 1995, lot 111.
Acquired by the present owner, 27 March 2000.
P. de Chennevières, 'Exposition des dessins, 1789-1889,' in L. Gonse and A.de Lostalot, Exposition universelle de 1889: Les Beaux-arts, Paris, 1889, p, 168.
R. L. Herbert, 'Millet Revisited - II,' The Burlington Magazine, vol. 104, no. 714, September 1962, p. 378, footnote 9.
A. Murphy, Jean-François Millet, Boston, 1984, p. 166, under 'Related Works'.
Paris, École nationale supe´rieure des beaux-arts, Exposition des oeuvres de J.-F. Millet, 1887, no. 93.
Paris, Exposition Universelle, Exposition centennale de l'art français (1789-1889), 1889, no. 444, as Bergères regardant passer un vol d'oies sauvages.
Lausanne, Fondation de l'Hermitage, Pastels, du 16e au 21e siècle, 2 February-21 May 2018, pp. 62, 221, no. 32, illustrated.

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Lot Essay

Le Passage des oies sauvages is one of Jean-François Millet’s most appealing and original compositions celebrating the lives of the young women who tended small flocks around his village home in Barbizon. Drawn in the early 1860s, probably about 1862-63, the pastel offers an image that is essentially timeless, expressed with a color and touch that were particularly modern and very much Millet’s own. Le Passage des oies sauvages, also known as Shepherdesses Watching a Flight of Wild Geese, was immediately well-received among the artist’s supportive followers and he went on to create two further versions of the theme.
Many of Millet’s wide-ranging themes of life in the fields and forests have their roots in his own childhood, expressions of scenes glimpsed as a young boy growing up in a remote farming village at the edges of Normandy, celebrating tasks he understood deep in his own body from long hours working the land himself beside his father and brothers. The shepherdesses that became a particularly important focus of his art during the 1850s and 1860s, however, represented a more puzzling and challenging range of subject, quite specific to the Chailly countryside that became his adopted homeland in 1849. The young girls who tended small family flocks led difficult, constrained lives that took them far from the more companionable moments of village and farm work. Away from home through very long days, the shepherdesses were effectively tethered to the slow-moving animals whom they had to keep grazing along the roadsides, rocky pathways, or wastelands to prevent their encroachment on the all-important wheat fields. Creating imagery from their quiet lives that would be honest and self-defining had to have been particularly hard for an artist working so consciously within a French tradition that had for several centuries presented the village shepherdess as the epitome of silly flirt or country wanton. It’s not difficult to imagine that the task of showing the Barbizon shepherdesses aright became especially meaningful to Millet during the years his own daughters – six in a family of nine children – were growing up so differently. (From time to time, one of his own daughters would pose for him in the studio wearing the heavy hooded cape seen on the seated shepherdess in Le Passage des oies sauvages.)
Over the years that Millet watched the local girls with their sheep, he captured numerous telling moments of boredom or biting cold that offered a sympathetic window on their lives. With Le Passage des oies sauvages, he found another small incident that opened their local stage to a much wider universe. Joining one of the most immediately recognizable signs of approaching winter, a V-shaped formation of geese flying overhead, to a spreading view of the harvested, empty Plain of Chailly beyond, with just the crest of the rocky gorges of the Forest of Fontainebleau suggested on the horizon, Millet anchored his young shepherdesses in a much broader cycle of seasons and the reassuring continuity of life, securely fixed in the heartlands beyond Paris.
Finished drawings had been a central focus of Millet’s creation since the mid-1850s, as he relied more and more on small-scale private collectors to sustain himself and his family in the face of often very harsh critical reactions to the paintings he exhibited regularly at the Salons. Until about 1860, those drawings had been executed almost entirely in black crayon, perhaps highlighted with a bit of white. In response to his patrons’ demand, he had experimented with working small areas of very restrained pastel or crayon color into a woman’s skirt or a landscape element, but the full-scale coloring of Le Passage des oies sauvages was relatively novel in his work. And particularly telling is the distinctive character of the colors he chose to feature, from the seated shepherdess’s intense coral headscarf or her pink skirt, to the yellow-green sleeve on her companion’s raised arm. Although Millet had produced a significant number of full-fledged pastels with a consciously eighteenth-century flavor and heavy, painterly layering much earlier in his career, he had effectively abandoned the medium around 1846, associated as it was with rococo frivolity, as he became much more clearly a master of the new realist moment. Certainly, the redirection toward color established in a work such as Le passage des oies sauvages was a response to a changing market for his drawings; but coming as it does in the first years of the 1860s, this renewed dedication to (a now more restrained) pastel technique should also be seen as a measure of Millet’s engagement with the work of one of his greatest heroes, Eugène Delacoix, whose brilliantly and startlingly colored Chapelle des Anges in the Church of San-Sulpice was completed and unveiled in 1861. Delacroix was seriously ill in the early 1860s and died in 1863; and it was only with Delacroix’s studio sale and a celebratory memorial exhibition that the older master’s extraordinary work in pastel become widely appreciated. But Millet and his circle of artist-collector friends had followed the color innovations of the master for a long time. There are very deep echoes of Delacroix’s distinctive fresco effects from San-Sulpice in Millet’s careful interweaving of his strong pastel colors into the softening gray framework of his underlying drawing in Le Passage des oies sauvages. Timeless and almost medieval Millet’s subject might be in Le Passage des oies sauvages, but the color celebration and draftsmanly technique were novel and decidedly modern. Millet would go on in the second half of the 1860’s to claim undeniably Delacroix’s pastel crown. That Millet’s contemporaries recognized his effort to grapple directly with Delacroix’s achievement is given charming credence by one of Millet’s own patron’s offer to trade all of the Delacroix sketches in his collection for one of the two subsequent versions of Le Passage des oies sauvages (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 1), and private collection, Japan).
Millet had a profound effect on the art of his contemporaries in the Barbizon school, and this influence later informed the artistic vocabulary of the artists of the Impressionist movement, including most notably, Vincent van Gogh (fig. 2). Van Gogh treatment of peasants working in the fields retain the monumentality of the figure captured so perfectly by Millet and his palette, although more saturated than the Barbizon master, captures the color harmonies so prevalent in Millet’s oeuvre.
In the years following Millet’s own death in 1875, Le Passage des oies sauvages was included in two exhibitions which strongly established Millet’s role as a major pastel artist, the Millet memorial of 1887 and the landmark century celebration of French drawing at the Exposition universelle of 1889.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for confirming the authenticity of this lot and preparing the catalogue note.

(fig. 1): Jean-François Millet, Shepherdesses Watching a Flight of Wild Geese, 1866. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
(fig. 2): Vincent van Gogh, The Shepherdess, after Millet, 1889. Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel.

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