Jean-François Millet was at the height of his powers as a painterly craftsman when he prepared La Cardeuse for the Salon of 1863, enjoying for the first time in more than a decade the pleasures of popular and critical success, as well as a small measure of newly-won financial security. His quiet confidence permeates this monumental image of a French peasant woman, from the careful composition that gives order to the scene, explaining her task for the viewer, to the complex schema of subtle color nuances and invitingly tactile brushwork that is worthy of the old masters he so revered. Robert L. Herbert found the ancestors of La Cardeuse in the grand sculptural versions of women carding wool that adorned the portals of Gothic cathedrals, while Millet's own audience recognized La Cardeuse as a descendent of the strong, benevolent heroines of Renaissance art, a Michealangelesque sibyl crossed with a del Sarto Madonna--a lineage that Millet himself would not have disdained. But for all the knowing artistry that came together in La Cardeuse, it was ultimately Millet's vision of the painting as a heart-felt tribute to the Norman women who had shaped his childhood and sent him off to become a painter that gave the image its serene certainty.
La Cardeuse is the last of Millet's great Salon paintings to be offered at public sale. Exhibited just twice in the last one hundred thirty years (and only twice before that during the year of its completion), this powerfully composed and beautifully executed image of a woman at work has been virtually unknown since it left France. Shortly after its Salon appearance in 1863 it was acquired by a wealthy New Yorker, Paran Stevens, and in the intervening century La Cardeuse has been passed quietly through only two family collections. Not until the picture's reappearance in the Millet centennial exhibition of 1975 (and the subsequent publication of an exceptional full-size detail of the painting in André Fermigier's beautiful book on Millet), have scholars and public alike been able to reconsider the importance of La Cardeuse in Millet's oeuvre.
Seated on a low chair, intent upon the rhythmic stroking of her carding paddles that will shape loose wool fibers into a soft coil suitable for spinning into thread, Millet's carder dominates a cool interior with her solid, sculptural figure and the subtly interlocked colors of her own fuzzy woolen garments. Around her are piled the materials and implements of her craft: on the floor knitting needles trailing a short scrap of yarn, perhaps abandoned by a child, suggest the ultimate goal toward which she works. A basket of loose, washed wool overflowing to her left marks the first stages of her task. In the lower corner of the painting, a neat pile of wool coils is laid out on a board, ready to be skillfully stretched and twisted into yarn on the large spinning wheel rising behind her - and through the rungs of the wheel, one glimpses a stash of small, full spindles arranged in a basket much like nestlings in a twiggy home.
Beyond the orderly enumeration of the wool-making tasks that he set out in La Cardeuse, Millet went on to celebrate the wool itself. From the fluffy bits of lint that seem to float just above the floor, through the nubby yellow sleeves of the carder's much-washed hand-knit sweater, to the softer woven textures of her heavy brown skirt and pink bodice, the painting is an appreciation of the chameleon character of wool as well as a recognition of its central importance for peasant clothing.
What holds this wealth of information together in La Cardeuse and always brings the viewer's attention back to the central character is Millet's careful interlocking of design and color. With a subtle schema setting off ruddy browns with complementary blue-greens, La Cardeuse gives up its coloristic riches slowly. The powerful coral red of the carder's marmotte headscarf, of course, attracts immediate attention to the artist's beautiful rendering of his model's flushed face; but it also serves as the brilliant high note from which a wide range of carnation, soft-brown and yellow-gold tints are spun off. The blue and green counterpoints are more deeply embedded in the painting, primarily through the cool, shadowy atmosphere, but they occasionally ring out more purely--in the green ribbon that keeps the carder's scissors by her side, the hint of her deep teal stocking just glimpsed between her skirt and savate, or the blue to blue-white fichu that circles her neck. It should surprise no viewer to learn that Millet was a proud and passionate collector of scraps of worn, weather-beaten, washed-out peasant clothing that he called his 'museum', a reference shelf for the coloring of his paintings.
Interestingly, in view of the special beauty and complexity of the color in La Cardeuse, the painting (like another of Millet's great images, The Gleaners of 1857), was first conceived as a black and white image, destined initially to be produced as an etching (Fig. 4). Millet had begun making drawings of carders during his last years in Paris, about 1848, when he started composing scenes of peasant and city laborers. Carding was a familiar task to him, for he had watched his mother and grandmother carding wool in his Normandy home in Gruchy; but as Robert L. Herbert has pointed out, Millet's first finished Carder drawing (Fig. 1) is as likely to have been based on figures in Gothic sculptural programs (possibly a well-known image of the Blessed Virgin as a carder from the North Portal of Chartres Cathedral) as on real personal experience. As Millet stepped slowly into ever more realistic subjects, he often turned to the example of earlier artists for reference or encouragement.
But shortly before he moved to Barbizon in 1849, small sketches and studies of women carding wool and spinning appear more frequently in his work, apparently based on scenes he had witnessed; and what can be considered the premìere pensée for La Cardeuse is found in a sketch for an interior scene combining a woman standing at a large wheel and a seated woman carding (Cabinet des dessins, Musée du Louvre, Paris). The basket on which the coils of wool rest in La Cardeuse can readily be detected in this schematic drawing of ten years earlier! Soon thereafter, Millet made a careful life study of a young woman carding (Fig. 2). But he soon sought a different figure type for his Cardeuse, substituting an older woman with a fuller body, more careworn hands, and a face that seems more contemplative than that of the model in the Mount Hlolyoke drawing. The importance he attached to a careful representation of his model is clear from the very beautiful life study of the model's face which is superimposed on an over-all drawing for the etching (Fig. 3). Millet approved the printing of his etching in 1857, as well as reprintings in 1860 and 1862 - which kept the image of a cardeuse very much before him as he began to ponder large scale, more monumental figure paintings around 1860. When he undertook his painting in January 1863, he opened up the composition of the etching for a squarer format and changed the pose and costume details of his carder slightly, but for the most part he worked within the basic composition of the earlier work. In the new, monumental verision of La Cardeuse, he turned his creative attention primarily to the color scheme and to a highly personalized painting style of everlaid small touches of paint and rough, textured brushwork.
That Millet had ultimately chosen matronly models for both his 1856 etching and for the present painting a few years later seems almost certainly to be an acknowledgement of the place carding held in his own memories. For he had explained to his friend and biographer Alfred Sensier that his very first memory was of waking to the whirr of a spinning wheel and the chatter of his mother, grandmother, and assorted aunts and village neighbors. As they spun and carded near his cradle, he remembered, he watched the woolen light bob in the sunlight from a nearby window. Indeed, as he made clear in a comment to a friendly critic at the time of the exhibition of La Cardeuse, the painting was specifically a salute to those women, whose spinning and carding work shaped his very earliest memories.
Millet had been seriously exploring the household and family activities of peasant women since the mid-1850s, a few years after establishing the repertoire of field and forest laboring scenes that dominated his first Barbizon works. Such themes were a natural out-growth of painting in a studio in the midst of a small rural village and in a household that eventually included seven daughters. But Millet's sympathy for women's lives and his acknowledgement of the value of their labors ran much deeper than mere circumstantial opportunism. He had grown up in a Norman farmhouse run by a strong, accomplished women of several generations for whom he carried affection and admiration througout his life. His mother and grandmother, under whose tutelage he had run their family farm for several years following his father's death and who had pooled their savings without complaint to help finance his decision to leave them in order to study painting in Paris, were very important to him and their lives seem to have been a reference point for him in many of his images of women at work. i was quiet dedication of a woman working for the provision and betterment of her own home and family that he recorded in La Cardeuse, not the beleaguered piece worker in one of the cottage industries that were beginning to intrude on the customs of central France.
La Cardeuse was delivered by Millet to Athur Stevens and Ennemond Blanc, dealers with whom he had signed an exclusivity agreement in 1860 in return for a monthly stipend. Although Millet was beginning to resent the constraints and expectations of that contract by the time he took up La Cardeuse in 1863, it seems in retrospect that relative financial security and the pressure to produce large, marketable images served the artist well by fostering his change to a more monumental format and highly finished paintings. La Cardeuse was purchased in 1866 by Paran Stevens, a hotel and real estate magnate, and must have been one of the first Millet paintings of real significance to come to New York (although Bostonians had collected Millet's work for more than a decade, Americans elsewhere were slower to appreciate his realistic imagery. That Stevens was origionally from New England and owned several hotels in Boston may well explain his pioneering interest in Millet.) In 1917, Meyer Lehman, a founding partner of Lehman Brothers banking group in New York and a significant collector of Barbizon paintings acquired a Cardeuse from the Stevens' heirs through Knoedler, and the painting has descended directly through his family. It is very unusual for a Millet of this significance and size never to have been offered in public sale.
In a last comment on Millet's attention to detail in creating a Cardeuse, one might note that his usually very precisely vertical signature was shaped to lie in the plane of the wooden floor of this painting, not on the painting's surface.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.