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Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art opens Friday

Exhibition with iconic artworks shows for the first time Millet’s impact on modern art across the world.

Jean-François Millet, ’The Gleaners’, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)
Jean-François Millet, ’The Gleaners’, 1857, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)

‘To me, [...] Millet is that essential modern painter who opened the horizon to many.’ So wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in February 1884. Now, for the first time ever, this exhibition explicitly focuses on how the work by the French painter Jean-François Millet was an inspiration to numerous painters worldwide. The exhibition reveals the ground-breaking nature of his work and the impact the painter had on a large number of well-known modern artists including Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, Kazimir Malevich and Salvador Dalí.

Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art opens Friday 4 October (coinciding with the artist’s 205th birthday) and will run until 12 January.

Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art:

Peasant painter Millet

The French artist Jean-François Millet (4 October 1814 – 20 January 1875) had a turbulent but successful career. Millet was often criticized for his work, for his radical painting technique as well as for the social criticism that his portrayal of peasant life seemed to imply. Artists and critics alike viewed Millet as the painter of harsh peasant life. Soon after his death, Millet was embraced by the French state as a national hero for his depiction of French rural life in all its glory. This image was due in part to the romanticized and internationally successful biography of Millet, published in 1881.

True sower of the seeds of modern art

Today Millet has largely been forgotten by the general public, and his work tends to be seen as traditional rather than as modern and progressive. Yet at the end of the 19th century, Millet was the world’s most famous modern artist. Countless reproductions were made of his work and he was immortalized in the form of numerous statues. He truly sowed the seeds of modern art, and he reaped the admiration of generations of artists worldwide.

His work was lauded for diverse reasons, ranging from his innovative compositions, his anti-academic technique, his rough painting strokes, his use of colour and materials and abstract approach to form and composition, to the themes he chose for his paintings. For example, by portraying peasants from up close, filling the canvas in a monumental style, Millet directly appeals to the viewer’s reverence and respect. This type of composition was adopted by artists like Vincent van Gogh. He saw Millet as a major example, even referring to him as ‘Père Millet’ (Father Millet).

Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art demonstrates for the first time how pioneering Millet’s work was for his time. The impact of his work becomes clear by juxtaposing his paintings, drawings and pastels thematically grouped together with works by a large number of internationally famous painters from the 19th and early 20th century such as Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Kazimir Malevich and Salvador Dalí.

Numerous top pieces

The exhibition presents 128 works, of which 108 pieces on loan from both museum and private collections from countries including Japan, the United States, France and Mexico. The Musée d’Orsay has made one of the most important and ground-breaking of Millet’s works available: The Angelus (1857–1859). It is the first time for this work to be exhibited in the Netherlands. Another top piece owned by Musée d’Orsay, The Gleaners – a work that provoked much controversy when first shown to the public after Millet painted it – will be exhibited. This work has not been shown in the Netherlands since 1988.

Also a top piece is Millet’s work The Sower, which has not left Japan since its purchase in 1977 by the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art, Kofu. This portrayal of a peasant sowing seeds had a profound impact on Vincent van Gogh, who adopted the theme for several of his own works.

Of the 128 works exhibited, 53 are by Millet and 18 are by Van Gogh. The exhibition also brings a number of special works by Van Gogh to the Netherlands, such as The Siesta (Musée d’Orsay Paris), Evening, The End of the Day (Menard Art Museum Japan), Vineyards at Auvers and Stairway at Auvers (Saint Louis Art Museum).

Collaboration and sponsors

Jean-Francois Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art is a collaboration with the Saint Louis Art Museum and was made possible thanks to the exceptional support of Musée d’Orsay.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the BankGiro Loterij, and the museum’s principal partners: Van Lanschot and ASML.


The same-titled, lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue places Millet’s oeuvre in the context of the artists he inspired, including Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Salvador Dalí. Published by THOTH publishers in collaboration with the Saint Louis Art Museum, the book contains 208 pages with 155 illustrations. It is published in a Dutch and English version.

Millet in The Hague

The Mesdag Collection in The Hague is also hosting an exhibition on Millet: Jean-François Millet and the Hague School (until 5 January 2020). This exhibition explores the influence of Millet on the artists of the Hague School such as Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve and Willem Roelofs. Both exhibitions therefore demonstrate Millet’s impact on artists in the 19th century.

The Van Gogh Museum Foundation has administered The Mesdag Collection since 1990.

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