Millet’s preoccupation with sheepshearers began in the early 1850s when he submitted ‘one of the most exquisitely executed paintings that he ever created’ to the Salon of 1853, Shearing Sheep, for which the present lot is the only existing study in color (fig 1) (A. Murphy, J. F. Millet, Boston, 1984, p. 69). This began a series of related drawings and paintings that culminated in the artist’s Sheepshearers oil painting of 1860, considered one of his most significant achievements. It was this monumental oil painting, exhibited at the 1861 Salon, that arguably cemented Millet’s reputation: ‘The ‘Woman Sheep-shearing’ is life-size, seen three-quarters in profile… Greek art and Giorgione—these are the two memories evoked by the original painting of this solitary worker, who will soon be classed among the masters of our time, and who, perhaps, opens a new era in art’ (Gazette des Beaux Arts quoted in A. Sensier, Jean-Francois Millet Peasant and Painter, Boston, 1881, p. 142, p. 145). Iconic works such as the present lot inspired subsequent artists to produce their own versions, most notably Vincent van Gogh, who was told by his brother that ‘The copies after Millet are perhaps the best things you have done yet…’ (fig. 2) (J. B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, p.254).
The importance of the present drawing lies not only in its direct link to two of Millet’s most revered oil paintings, but also in its exceptional provenance. The watercolor was gifted to the artist’s most constant friend, Alfred Sensier, in 1857. Sensier was Millet’s only contemporary intimate enough with the artist to produce his biography. The work remained in Sensier’s collection for twenty years until his death and is on the market for the first time since 1937.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for confirming the authenticity of this work.
Vincent Van Gogh, After Millet, The Sheep-shearer, 1889. Found in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Credit: HIP / Art Resource, NY.
Jean-François Millet, The Sheepshearers, 1857/1861. Potter Palmer Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago.