L’Horizon (or La Plaine) was drawn by Jean-François Millet about 1868 as part of the glorious suite of nearly one hundred pastels and drawings commissioned in 1865 by the architect and collector Émile Gavet, one of the artist’s most significant patrons. Although the barely defined motif of the solitary shepherd leading a remarkably orderly trail of sheep along the horizon directly recalls several of Millet’s earliest drawings and paintings of the great plain of Chailly (some 15 years earlier), L’Horizon is less a record of shepherding customs around Barbizon than it is a celebration of the vast, imposing plain itself and of the startling beauty of the late day skies and sunsets that so dominated Millet’s interests in the final decade of his life.
The Plain of Chailly is one of the two great natural landmarks, along with the bordering Forest of Fontainebleau, that define the everyday realities of Barbizon and give a distinctive character to the paintings and drawings created there. When Millet first arrived in Barbizon, from Paris in 1849, he had to learn his way into this new landscape with drawings and paintings that helped him give order to a geography that was fundamentally different from the hillsides and hedgerow-enclosed fields of the Norman farming communities where he had grown up. The distinctive Plain, home to several quite large, essentially industrialized, farms producing wheat for Parisians’ daily bread provided the controversial raison d’être for many of Millet’s most famous paintings throughout the 1850s – The Gleaners, The Angelus, The Return of the Flock – as well as the backdrop for these powerful figural subjects. But as Millet walked the plain nearly every afternoon or evening, when the light grew too dim to allow him to paint, the Plain of Chailly itself began to shift Millet’s art toward pure landscape. The twilights and sunsets that he reveled in on the Plain gave particular impetus for the experiments with black crayon and pastel that he had begun around 1860.
L’Horizon is a late autumnal scene, as the flight of birds above and the faint furrow lines of the empty fields attest. The weedy stubble and the irregular patches of compost, waiting to be plowed under, gave Millet range for the forceful, choppy mark-making that characterized his crayon work in the mid-1860s. But it is the challenge of capturing the vast dome of sky and the striking effect of the last rays of sun breaking through the dimming atmosphere that truly held Millet’s interest in this intricately balanced pastel. The controlled coloring, over a nuanced architecture of black crayon, captures an hour and a season with great precision; yet a mood of mysticism pervading the composition recalls Millet’s oft-quoted homily: that in his art he believed the trivial must always serve the sublime.
L’Horizon was drawn for Émile Gavet, a collector intent on cornering Millet’s work on paper well before the artist’s skills as an experimental draughtsman were widely known. When a selection of Gavet’s collection including L’Horizon was shown in Paris shortly after the artist’s death, critics and the broader art public alike were stunned by the breadth and depth of Millet’s draughtsmanly repertoire. Subsequently, L’Horizon, under the title of La Plaine was lent by Ernest May (a prominent banker as well as a patron of Degas) to two further landmark shows, the Millet retrospective at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1887 and the centennial review of French art within the Exposition Universelle of 1889, contributing to the new recognition that the oft-maligned ‘peasant painter’ had truly been an artist of many parts, one of the grands hommes of 19th century French art.
We are grateful to Alexandra R. Murphy for her assistance in providing this catalogue note.