Jean-François Millet painted the present work at the end of the 1840s, during the same period that he created The Winnower (National Gallery, London) and The Sower (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Although the large figures of forthright French peasants at their labours that he exhibited at the Salon represented Millet's highest ambitions, he was also working regularly on smaller paintings and figure studies that were more easily saleable in the troubled climate around the Revolution of 1848.
During the 1840s, Millet (like many of the most ambitious of his contemporaries) passed through a period of serious engagement with eighteenth-century French painting. In the Rococo example of artists such as Boucher and Fragonard and the more realistic paintings of Chardin, younger artists found alternatives to the strict neo-classicism being pressed by Ingres. Pre-revolutionary French painting offered young artists a broader range of subjects than the academic regimen. Importantly for Millet, Narcisse Diaz, and Constant Troyon, this neo-rococo moment also presented a more sensual manner of paint handling and an appreciation for coloristic experiment. Nymphe dans les roseaux clearly has roots in eighteenth century images (fig. 1), such as of the amorous pan chasing Syrinx into the riverside reeds but Millet dispensed with the out-dated story line and emphasised a very real, unidealised female figure. The haphazard tangle of green foliage gave him an opportunity to explore the nuances of shadows on the lovely model and the chance for quite unrestrained brushwork.
Nymphe dans les roseaux is one of the most securely dated of Millet's paintings of the female nude, for in a letter dated 5 February 1851 to Millet in Barbizon, his friend Alfred Sensier informs the artist that he has been able to sell a small panel of "Une petite femme sortant des roseaux et montrant ses fesses" for 50 francs, a reference to this painting. Nymphe dans les roseaux is directly based upon a Millet drawing of almost exactly the same size, now in the Kunsthalle, Bremen. In recent years, numerous unrecorded Millet studies of young women bathing or moving in and out of a reedy riverbank have come to light, demonstrating how seriously Millet pondered this painting and perhaps planned a much more complex multi-figure bathing composition.
Late in the nineteenth century, when the phenomenal popularity of Millet's Angelus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) took root and the artist was recast as an exemplar of conservative values that he had never espoused, his paintings of the female nude were brushed aside as youthful aberrations. Nymphe dans les roseaux is a beautiful and beguiling reminder that Millet was an exceptional master of the female form working at the heart of a century that exulted the female nude.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy who has kindly authenticated this work and written the above catalogue entry.