Browse Lots

Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
Jean Francois Millet (French, 1814-1875)

Jean Francois Millet (French, 1814-1875)

The Old Wall

signed 'J. F. Millet' lower right--oil on canvas
20 x 24¼in. (50.8 x 61.6cm.)
Offered by the artist to the dealers Arthur Stevens and Ennemond Blanc, Paris, December, 1862
Alfred Sensier, Paris; sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, December 10-18, 1877, no. 57, bought by Templaere
Samuel P. Avery, New York; sale, New York, American Art Association, March 20, 1902, no. 66, bought by Meyer H. Lehman
Meyer H. Lehman, New York, until 1918 and by descent to
Mrs. Harriet Lehman Weil and Mrs. Bertha Lehman Rosenheim, by descent to
Mrs. Elsie Rosenheim Weil and Dr. Henry Lehman Weil, by descent to
Dr. George L. Weil, Washington, D.C., 1952, and by descent
A. Sensier, La Vie et l'oeuvre de J.-F. Millet, Paris 1881, p. 232
E. Moreau-Nélaton, Millet raconteé par lui-même, Paris, 1921, p.118
Munich, Haus der Kunst (Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen), Corot, Courbet und die Maler von Barbizon - Les amis de la nature, 1996, no. B 112, illustrated in color.

Lot Essay

The Old Wall, depicting the densely overgrown boundary that separated the Forest of Fontainbleau from the village of Barbizon and the surrounding wheat fields, was painted by Millet in 1862. Lost from public view for nearly a century, this extraordinary celebration of forest wildlife large and small challenges the narrow view of Millet as simply a painter of peasant scenes, reminding us that artists and viewers of his own day also admired him as a master of landscape art.

In the 1860s, a decrepit stone wall still enlcosed much of the Forest of Fontainbleau, identifying the area as once a protected royal hunting ground and keeping deer and other animals within the preserve, away from enticing gardens and grain fields - as well as from poachers - in the several villages that dotted the forest perimeter. In Millet's painting, a large stag stands tensely just behind a man-made breach in that wall, pausing before advancing into the dangers of the open land in the foreground. The strongly angled light of late afternoon only barely picks the deer out, catching on an antler, on the white fur on his chest and on the trampled leaves at his feet. Around him, the crumbling wall is a veritable encyclopedia of the grasses, ferns, ivies, flowers, and young shrubs that filled the cooler terrain of the complex Forest and the thin, uncultivated edge of the Chailly plain that abuts it. In the foreground, two frogs gambol amid dandelions and broken branches. A letter from the New York dealer, Théodore Noé to Meyer Lehman dated March 2, 1902 recounts a meeting he had with Millet's son, who remembered catching the frogs for his father to paint.

Lovingly painted, as dense with distinctive brushwork and unexpected colors as it it with forest flora and fauna, The Old Wall is a tribute to Millet's skills as both an observer and a painterly craftsman. The protected stones at the heart of the wall are still orange and crisp, while the well-weathered outer blocks crumble at the edges, frosted white and pink with lichens; ferns are browning with the autumn, while a tuft of wheaten-grass is loaded with grain. Even more, The Old Wall is a public testament to Millet's usually privately contained affection for the least of nature's achievements. As he wrote a few years later to a favored patron: "The forest was marvelously beautiful in this attire (of frog and hoarfrost), but I am not sure but that the most modest of objects, the bushes and briars, tufts of grass, and little twigs of all kinds, were not in their way the beautiful of all. It seems as if Nature wished to give them a chance to show that these poor despised things are inferior to nothing in God's creation." (Millet to Emile Gavet, December 28, 1865; Archives, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

The Old Wall is also important for its revelation of Millet's capacity for distinctly quirky mark-making. The patchy leaves of ivy, the ragged, jagged twists of fluid paint that record dangling roots and broken branches, the gritty, sandy surfaces of brittle stones are the naturalistic culmination of Millet's enjoyment of painting demonstrated in his youthful manière fleurie twenty years before. Often suppressed in the deference to more concentrated figural imagery in his scenes of working peasants, this technical virtuosity had continued to develop primarily in Millet's drawings. Only in the 1860s, as landscape painting and craftsmanship for its own sake took new precedence in his art, did Millet reveal this aspect of his artistic persona more fully.

When Millet took up the subject of a stag pausing on the edge of the forest a second time, in a black crayon drawing (Private Collection, Tokyo), he minimized the wall to focus on the silhouetted stag and the impenetrable screen of trees behind him, shifting the emphasis from the intimacy with nature to drama. The closest true relations to the The Old Wall in Millet's oeuvre are a trio of pastels, also appreciations of the flowers of the forest floor, Dandelions and Primroses (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and Daffodils (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), in which the artist has moved down to his knees to observe the plants; and the magnificent patch of mud and briars being hacked of in The Man with the Hoe (J. P. Getty Museum, Malibu).

Although beautifully described in Sensier's Life and works of Millet, The Old Wall has otherwise gone undiscussed in Millet literature because it has never been exhibited, tucked away in private collections in the United States since shortly after its sale following Sensier's death in 1877. Had this very personal portrait of the Forest of Fontainbleau been better known, it would have demanded a far more thoughtful appreciation of Millet's place among the Barbizon landscape painters.

We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.


More from Barbizon, Realist and French Landscape Paintings

View All
View All