Tag Archives: Jean Francois Millet

Jean-Francois Millet, French Realist Painter of Ordinary People

Jean-Francoise Millet spent his youth doing the ordinary work of farming—plowing, sowing, cutting hay, and harvesting. Even when he later studied art and moved to Paris, he never forgot his roots, eventually leaving Paris to settle his family in a rural area. There Millet painted scenes of rural life, such as

The Angelus, by Jean-Francois Millet, Musee D’Orsay, public doma

The Angelus and The Sower, which are beloved paintings today.

The sower by Jean Francois Millet, public domain







The painting we’re going to look at isn’t as well-known as those, but I think you’ll love it and its spiritual emphasis, too!

The post includes:

  • Getting to Know Jean-Francois Millet and the Realist art movement
  • Looking at The Sheepfold, Moonlight, (includes helpful vocabulary)
  • Choosing Activities to Help You and Your Children Further Explore the Painting
  • Going Deeper to Discover What God Can Teach Us Through this Painting

Getting to Know Jean-Francois Millet, Realist painter

Jean Francois Millet, photo by Nadir, public domain

Born in 1814, the oldest son of a peasant family in rural Normandy, France, Millet spent his youth working on the family farm. When he was 19, he began studying with area artists, and in 1837 moved to Paris for further study.

Millet and several artist friends became more interested in painting landscapes and everyday life than portraits and historical events. They found inspiration in the landscapes of 17th century Dutch artists, such as Jacob van Ruisdael,

View of Naarden by Jacob van Ruisdael, public domain

and the contemporary landscapes of English artist, John Constable

The Hay Wain by John Constable, public domain

(for more about John Constable, see this first of a series of my posts about him). https://kathythepicturelady.wordpress.com/2019/09/

These young French artists, working around the mid 1800s, became known as Realists, because they didn’t idealize the people and places they painted. The group is also sometimes called the Barbizon School, because many painted near Barbizon, a rural village on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, 30 miles southeast of Paris. (An artistic school isn’t a building, but a group of artists who often know each other, may paint together, and have similar artistic goals and/or styles)

The Realists were among the first to paint outside (en plein air). They loved nature and tried to observe and paint it accurately. Their work made landscapes an acceptable subject for art in France, inspiring and paving the way for the Impressionists at the end of the century. They also influenced later artists of America’s Hudson River School.

Autumn on the Hudson, Jasper Cropsey, public domain

(Look here for my first post in a series about one Hudson River School artist) https://kathythepicturelady.wordpress.com/2020/09/18/painting-the-light/

Many Realist artists painted near Barbizon just in the summer. But following violence in Paris in the 1840s and an outbreak of cholera, Millet moved his family to Barbizon, where he spent the rest of his life.

In his much-loved paintings, The Sower and The Angelus, we see how Millet understood the importance of farming and gave farm workers dignity and a heroic quality, once only used for great historical figures. Millet had a huge influence on the work of Vincent van Gogh.

Millet”s The Sower, 1850

The sower by Jean Francois Millet, public domain

Van Gogh’s Sower at Sunset, 1888

Sower at Sunset by Vincent van Gogh, public domain


Looking at The Sheepfold, Moonlight by Jean-Francois Millet

The Sheepfold, Moonlight by Jean-Francois Millet, public domain

In this nocturnal, scene we see a shepherd directing his sheep into a pen on a wide plain near the village of Barbizon. Our vantage point is up close, just in front of the sheep. Millet typically paints his main characters up close and large.

Go here to the painting at the Walters Art Museum to look at an enlarged picture. https://art.thewalters.org/detail/24760/the-sheepfold-moonlight-2/

Beyond the shepherd and sheep in the foreground, the plain stretches away to the horizon. There’s no middle ground, and a good half of this painting is sky. Showing so much sky emphasizes the large plain and highlights the brilliant moon and its light effects. Notice that the sky is blue, not black as it might be later in the night.

It’s the end of the day. Twilight deepens, the moon rises over the plain, and the shepherd brings his flock home for the night. Much of the painting is in shadow, but see how the moonlight shines on the underside of the clouds and the backs of the sheep.

Also notice how the shepherd and his staff are silhouetted against the sky as he holds the gate open for the sheep to enter. Two dogs are next to him to help funnel the sheep into the pen.

Helpful Vocabulary

  • Realist—true to what is seen
  • Nocturnal—night time scene
  • Vantage point—where the viewer would be standing in the painting
  • Foreground—front of a painting
  • Middle ground—the middle of a painting
  • Horizon—where the land or sea and the sky meet
  • Silhouette—when a figure shows in dark outline against a lighter background

Choosing Activities to Help You and Your Children Further Explore the Painting

Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that.

  1. This is a great painting to talk about mood and how an artist creates that.
  2. What is the mood of this painting? Do all those shadows make it mysterious? A little scary? Are there colors, shapes, lines, etc. that make you think that?
  3. If this were the opening scene of a movie, what do you think might happen next?
  4. What music might you hear during this opening scene?

You may also enhance children’s observational and verbal skills, as well as their imaginations with the following questions:

  1. What things tell you that the sheep are entering the pen, not leaving?
  2. How does a shepherd’s dogs help him?
  3. Why would the shepherd keep the sheep in a pen for the night?
  4. If we were in the painting, where would we be standing?
  5. What sounds might we hear?
  6. What colors do you see in the sky?
  7. What things are in shadow?
  8. Which things are lit by moonlight?
  9. Do the sheep look tired?

Going Deeper to Discover What God Can Teach Us through the Painting

This painting can help you explore with children an important way the Bible often talks about the relationship between God and us, and his loving and wise care of us. Psalm 23 says,” the Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 100 says, “we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

Now let’s look again at The Sheepfold, Moonlight painting. It’s the end of a long day. The sheep look tired, and the sky is dark. Clouds may tell of a coming storm. Thick shadows surround the sheep pen.

The Sheepfold, Moonlight by Jean-Francois Millet, public domain

  1. Do you think the sheep would be afraid of those shadows?
  2. What dangers may lurk in the nighttime shadows surrounding the sheep? (wolves, thieves, rocky cliffs, scary storms with thunder and lightning could scatter the sheep and hurt them)
  3. Do you sometimes get frightened at night?
  4. What are some things that make you afraid?

Now look at who is silhouetted against the sky. It’s the shepherd with his staff. In Psalm 23:4 David says, “I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

The shepherd is taking care of his sheep. He has led them home for the night and is guiding them into the safety of a pen that will hug around them—it’s called a sheepfold.

See how the shepherd is holding the gate open for the sheep to go in. He opens the gate, so the sheep can enter the safety of the pen. In John 10 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate of the sheep . . . I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:8,9).

During the night, the shepherd will sleep across the gateway to protect his sheep from danger, and will even give his life for his sheep. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

We are like those sheep—sometimes we become frightened of dangers that could hurt us. But Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He loves us and he gave his life, so we could become part of his flock. We can rest, knowing he will watch over us and never leave us, keeping us safe in his very own sheepfold.

Let’s thank Jesus for being our loving and wise Good Shepherd!

Prayer  Thank you, Jesus, that when we run to you, you will guide us and open the gate for us to enter your sheepfold. There we will be part of your flock and be safe forever. In your name, we pray. Amen.

(All verses are from the New International Version of the Bible)

Molly and I hope you’ll come back for our next post of a cute art project about sheep!

But Before You Go:

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to click the button to sign up for my newsletter., and receive a free guide to making art museum visits a fun masterpiece for your whole family!

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Harvesters Resting and The Gleaners, Jean-Francois Millet

I grew up in a coastal town in Maine, where there were many family farms. My brother and I sometimes worked on the weeding crews. We also spent a lot of time at our grandparents’ farm, learning and probably getting in the way, as they planted, weeded, and harvested from late spring to early fall. Some of my first memories are of helping my grandmother shell peas on the sun porch and of going down cellar carrying jars of canned vegetables. By the end of the summer glass mason jars filled with beans or corn or rhubarb, and sealed with red rubber rings, stretched along all the shelves.

Grandpa Urquhart working on his woodpile

Grandpa Urquhart working on his woodpile

Outside my grandfather would be picking and husking corn. And although he was getting too old to do the haying himself, he was always working on splitting wood for his wood pile.


Fast forward about 15 years and my husband and I were doing much the same things on a small farm of our own.Farm 007 Farm 005In the spring we planted vegetables and waded with buckets of food among little squealing piglets. Farm 003By fall we were digging up carrots and potatoes and trying to avoid being bowled over by big, fat porkers.

In between we kept on cutting and splitting wood.

Wes working on his woodpile

Wes working on his woodpile

Farm 004Farm 002





Why all the fond farm memories?

Because today I can zip off to the grocery store for food, and I can flip a switch on the wall for heat, I tend to forget the hard work that it takes to grow and harvest all I use. I bet you do, too. We also don’t experience real shortages anymore. The drought in California and the bird flu in the Midwest may have increased prices, but we can still find plenty of vegetables and eggs in the stores.

But through much of human history, and still today in many areas, people must live on what they can produce, and a bad harvest can mean a lean winter or even starvation.

The early 1800s in France was one of those times. Industrialization was changing the job market. Large factories brought people crowding into the cities. Farming was also changing. Absentee landlords were buying up land to create large, commercial farms that employed fewer people. The lack of jobs for many and low wages and poor living conditions even for many who did have work caused great social unrest. These are the years of political turmoil in France that are pictured in Les Miserables.

During these chaotic times a group of young artists broke with the art establishment and began to paint landscapes and scenes of everyday life instead of great historical events. They are known as Realists, because they painted people and places as they really looked. They are also called the Barbizon School, named for a rural village 30 miles south of Paris where many of them painted. If you remember from my blog on the Hudson River School, an artistic school means a group of artists who often know each other, sometimes paint together, and have similar artistic styles.

The Realists were among the first artists to paint in the open air (en plein air), and they inspired and helped pave the way for the Impressionists at the end of the century.

Jean Francois Millet, photo by Nadir, public domain

A leader of the Realists was Jean-Francois Millet, who grew up in rural Normandy. Millet showed artistic talent early, and his family sent him to study in Paris. He studied at the leading art school and with a well-known history painter.

Following the violence in Paris in the 1830s and 40s, Millet moved to Barbizon. He spent the rest of his life there, painting and raising a family of nine children. In Barbizon the subject of Millet’s art changed from portraits to scenes of rural people working at everyday tasks.


Two of his iconic and much loved paintings are The Angelus and The Sower.

The Angelus by Jean Francois Millet, public domain

The sower by Jean Francois Millet, public domain









Harvesters Resting, Ruth and Boaz by Jean Francois Millet, Wikimedia commons

Millet painted Harvesters Resting (or Ruth and Boaz, its original title) in 1853. He returned to the subject again in 1857 with the now better-known painting, The Gleaners. The two oil paintings are each about two feet by four feet and seem to be about abundant harvests. Huge stacks of grain loom large in the first and dot the middle and background of the other.

The Gleaners by Jean Francois Millet, public domain

But the actual topic is just the opposite of abundance; it is gleaning. This was a provision that allowed poor and landless people to go into already-harvested fields to pick up any grain left by the farm workers. In Leviticus 19:9-10 God told the Israelites to leave the gleanings from their fields, vineyards, and orchards, as well as the corners of their fields, for the needy.

The title, The Gleaners, is a pretty big hint about the subject, but the focal point of each painting also says, “gleaning.” Find in each of these paintings the person wearing red or reddish brown clothing. That’s the focal point, the place Millet wants you to notice first so you’ll get his message.

In Harvesters Resting Boaz is the focal point of the painting. With one arm on Ruth’s shoulder and the other gesturing toward the resting workers, his out-stretched arms create movement and bridge the gap between gleaner and worker. In The Gleaners the red hat and red sleeves of the middle woman make sure you notice these three hard-working women first.

Harvesters Resting, Ruth and Boaz by Jean Francois Millet, Wikimedia commons

In Millet’s time, the upper classes looked upon his paintings of peasants as ugly and threatening. In addition, Millet painted his subjects with a sculptural look that made them seem heroic, and traditionalists objected to showing peasants that way. They thought only great people from history or the Bible should be shown in that manner. In his lifetime many of his paintings were not well-received, and he never made much money.

The focal point is most important, but artists also want you to look around their paintings, and they often use color for this. Millet has used blue. It doesn’t grab our attention first thing, but it does help to unify the composition and move your eyes around. In Harvesters Resting Ruth’s clothing is the brightest area of blue. Where are the other blues? Notice how they lead you around and back to Ruth.

In The Gleaners the blue hat of the woman on the left is the brightest. Where else do you see blues that “show” you around?

In these two paintings Millet has arranged a number of people and things in groups of three. Find the groups of three grain stacks in each painting. How many groups of three stacks are in The Gleaners? Find the other figures or objects arranged in threes.

Although there are some similarities in these two paintings, there are also big differences. In Harvesters Resting everyone is in the foreground in the shadow of three huge stacks, and the workers are in various positions of rest while taking their noonday meal.

The Gleaners by Jean Francois Millet, public domain

In The Gleaners it is all work; in fact, every phase of harvesting is shown in the distance. Look closely and find people cutting the grain, carrying the sheaves, stacking it on the cart, and on one of the stacks. And of course, the three gleaners are hard at work in the foreground. These three women have come to be a well-known symbol of hard work in Western art. They seem to be just a few feet in front of  us.

In The Gleaners it’s easy to see the hard work of harvesting. We can almost feel the sun beating down, the scratchy stalks of wheat, and the chaff blowing into our mouths and eyes. We can imagine the ache of backs and necks that have been bent over all day.

The clues that tell you harvesting is hard work are different in Harvesters Resting. What are they?

There’s also a difference in the light. In The Gleaners the light is a little harsh and brassy, revealing the poverty of the women, but in Harvesters Resting there is a soft golden glow that makes everything seem more peaceful and secure.

One last difference: in Harvesters Resting the owner is up close and part of things. As already said, he is the focal point. But you might have trouble finding the overseer in The Gleaners. Hint: he is on a donkey. Where is he in relation to the workers?

It is in these contrasts that we find our spiritual lesson. In The Gleaners there is hopelessness because there is an unbridgeable gap between the three landless and impoverished gleaners and the abundant harvest behind them.

The Gleaners by Jean Francois Millet, public domain

In Harvesters Resting Boaz bridges that gap when he invites the gleaner, Ruth, to join the group that is resting and surrounded by abundance. Boaz is what the Old Testament calls a kinsman redeemer.

Harvesters Resting, Ruth and Boaz by Jean Francois Millet, Wikimedia commons

The dictionary defines a redeemer as someone who pays a price to ransom or save something. But in the Old Testament book of Ruth God has given us a much fuller picture of a kinsman redeemer.

In Old Testament times in Israel the land did not belong to the people, but to God, their king (Leviticus 25: 23). Each family was given the use of a portion of it, which gave them an inheritance in God’s earthly kingdom, and taught them in a down-to-earth way of their inheritance in His heavenly kingdom. So it was very important for Hebrew families to hold onto their land. If they became very poor and had to sell it, God said that a relative must redeem the land—the kinsman redeemer (Leviticus 25: 24-25).

As the story unfolds in Ruth a Hebrew family moves away from their land in Israel during a famine. While in Moab the two sons marry, but eventually both they and their father die, leaving the three women alone. Naomi and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, return to Israel.

In that society women without husbands or sons had little means of support and often lived in great poverty. Gleaning during harvests was often the only way to survive, and Ruth faithfully went out each day to do this back-breaking work. It was not an abundant or secure way of life. Look at how poorly the three women in The Gleaners are dressed, how hard they’re working, and how little they’re getting.

Ruth ends up gleaning in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Naomi. Bethlehem was not a huge place, and Boaz, along with most everyone, knew Naomi’s situation and that Ruth had left her homeland and her family out of her love for her mother-in-law. Boaz commends Ruth for her love and loyalty and encourages her to join his workers for mealtimes and to stay close to them for protection as she gleans. Boaz also tells his workers to leave extra for Ruth. Eventually He marries Ruth. Boaz and Ruth’s son Obed is the grandfather of King David.

Even on the surface the book of Ruth is a beautiful story of love and faithfulness. More than that, though, Ruth, and these two paintings that illustrate it, are a picture of us before and after Christ comes into our lives.

When Naomi and Ruth returned from Moab, they were in the first situation, shown in The Gleaners, poor and without hope. Before Christ we are poor and without security or hope in this life or the next.

Harvesters Resting shows Ruth after Boaz has found her and begun to put his protective arms around her.

Boaz is the kinsman redeemer, and what he does for Ruth is a beautiful picture of what Christ, our kinsman redeemer, does for us when He finds us and begins to put His arms around us.

  • Read the book of Ruth and study these paintings to see and reflect on all the ways Christ, our kinsman redeemer, rescues and cares for us. Here are just a few:
    He became one of us, not staying far off
    He seeks us out when we are still strangers to Him
    He paid the price to redeem us
    He casts out our fears and provides protection for us
    He gives wise counsel to us
    He helps us in our work
    He is pleased with and rewards our faithfulness
    He provides for us abundantly
    He serves us bread and wine
    He uses His wisdom and power to accomplish His plan for us
    He intercedes for us
    He gives us His name and provides a secure home for us in this life and the next

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