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 and The Sower, which are beloved paintings today.
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
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,
and the contemporary landscapes of English artist, John Constable
(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.
(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
Van Gogh’s Sower at Sunset, 1888
Looking at The Sheepfold, Moonlight by Jean-Francois Millet
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.
- 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.
- This is a great painting to talk about mood and how an artist creates that.
- 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?
- If this were the opening scene of a movie, what do you think might happen next?
- 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:
- What things tell you that the sheep are entering the pen, not leaving?
- How does a shepherd’s dogs help him?
- Why would the shepherd keep the sheep in a pen for the night?
- If we were in the painting, where would we be standing?
- What sounds might we hear?
- What colors do you see in the sky?
- What things are in shadow?
- Which things are lit by moonlight?
- 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.
- Do you think the sheep would be afraid of those shadows?
- 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)
- Do you sometimes get frightened at night?
- 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:
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