‘Millet and Modern Art’: SLAM’s ambitious international exhibition

Lydia McKelvie | Staff Writer

French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) was arguably one of the best-known painters of the 19th century. He held international influence, with pieces selling at the highest prices of any modern works at auctions. According to a press release from the St. Louis Art Museum, Vincent Van Gogh said of him, “Millet is Father Millet…counselor and guide in everything for the younger painters.” He had a substantial influence on the biggest names in modern art, including Van Gogh, Monet and Dalí. However, many causal museum-goers are unaware of Millet’s importance in the world of art history, especially in regards to his radical style and subject matter. The St. Louis Art Museum would like to change that with their new international exhibition “Millet and Modern Art.”

Millet was a pioneer in his imagery of rural peasant life, often representing peasant labor in a highly dignified manner as a political statement. His subject matter and technique were often considered controversial during his lifetime, but after his death, the French state adopted Millet as a national hero. His work has influenced countless modern artists from across national boundaries and artistic movements.

The exhibition is primarily structured by the direct comparison of specific works by Millet to the works of countless artists that he influenced. These side-by-side compositional comparisons are as compelling as they are visually striking. For example, the figure of Millet’s “The Sower” is repeated in Van Gogh’s own work of the same title, only with an entirely different interpretation in terms of color palette and line. Some of the comparisons are more thematic, such as the influence of Millet’s “The Angelus,” which depicts a peasant couple praying in a field, and Dalí’s “Meditation on the Harp”, which reinterprets the subject matter in a more surrealist, psychosexual sense. This structure enhances the viewer’s sense of Millet’s direct influence on these artists and on modernism as a whole.

The primary goal of “Millet and Modern Art” is to rediscover Millet’s role in the birth and development of modernism, which they certainly accomplish through a visually exciting experience that any visitor could enjoy and learn from. Those who knew little to nothing about Millet’s work before will leave the exhibition with a newfound appreciation for his influence and understanding of modern art. It is a highly effective exhibition that is moving, thought-provoking and educational to all.

This exhibition, despite the ambitious scale, remains highly accessible to any museum visitor. The visitor is easily guided through the exhibition both thematically and chronologically. The artists featured are familiar to most audiences, but the viewer still walks away with a new understanding of the works of these household names. In addition, the exhibition includes a section dedicated to the basic historical context for the exhibition through visual graphics and an interactive component wherein visitors can reinterpret Millet’s work themselves.

Museum visitors can see “Millet and Modern Art” any time the museum is open. Tickets are $12 for students and free on Fridays. More information about events and related programming can be found at slam.org.

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