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Title The Wood Sawyers
Alternative Title Les Scieurs de Long
Collection Victoria and Albert Museum
Artist Millet, Jean-François (French painter and draftsman, 1814–1875)
Date Earliest about 1850
Date Latest about 1852

This painting is a fine example of the peasant scenes for which Millet is best known. It depicts two men sawing a large trunk, while another is chopping trees in the background. Although considered as a member of the Barbizon school for his technical approach to the rendering of light and colours, Millet preferred figure painting to landscape. His rural scenes are often interpreted as a reaction against a society that was becoming more and more bourgeois thanks to the industrial revolution.

Jean-François Millet was born in Normandy and first trained with a local portrait painter, Bon Du Mouchel (1807-1846), and later in Cherbourg with Lucien-Théophile Langlois (1803-1845), a pupil of Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). In Paris, he then entered the atelier of the history painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856). He first specialised in portraiture and then moved towards the naturalistic style with peasant scenes for which he became best known.

Museum Number CAI.47
Subject figure; landscape; everyday life; trade and industry
Measurements 57 × 81 cm (estimate)
Material oil on canvas
Acquisition Details Bequeathed by Constantine Alexander Ionides 1900.
Provenance Most likely to be identified with Wood cutters in a French forest, ‘Second…Exhibition of … The Society of French Artists', Durand-Ruel, London, June 1871; probably bought from Durand-Ruel by William Ernest Henley around 1871; probably sold directy to Constantine Alexander Ionides with whom Henley was acquainted (cf. letter from Henley to Ionides, 13.06.1883, NAL :86.ZZ.182, MSL/2006/132). According to the inventory of his collection (private collection), Ionides purchased the work for £1200.
Principal Exhibitions French and Dutch Loan Collection, Edinburgh International Exhibition, 1886 (1131); French and Dutch Romanticists, Dowdeswell Galleries, London, 1889 (85); Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1896 (64); Exposé: Jean-François Millet's painting 'The Woodsayers', Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1991; La foret de Fontainebleau: un atelier grandeur nature, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2007 (65).
Publications Henley, W. E., Memorial Catalogue of the French and Dutch Loan Collection, Edinburgh International Exhibition 1886, 1888, no. 83 (repr. of a sketch of it by William Hole, R.S.A); Monkhouse, C., 'The Constantine Ionides Collection', in Magazine of Art, vii, 1884, p. 43 repr. p. 37; Tomson, A., Jean-François Millet and the Barbizon School, 1903, repr. facing p.66; Anon. in Athenaeum, 23 July 1904, p. 119; Herbert, R. L., 'Millet revisited' in Burlington Magazine, civ, 1962, p. 301; Kauffmann, C. M., The Barbizon School, V&A Museum, 1965, p. 18, pl. 11; Kauffmann, C.M. Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, II. 1800-1900 , London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, pp. 73-74, cat. no. 162; Lepoitevin, L, Jean-François Millet, II, Paris, 1973, fig. 70; Pollock, G., Millet, 1977, fig. 10 & 11; 100 Great Paintings in The Victoria & Albert Museum. London, V&A, 1985, p. 146; Laughton, B., Daumier and Millet Drawings, 1991, pp. 83-84; Laughton, Bruce and Scalisi, Julia, 'Millet's "Woodsawyers" and "La République" rediscovered', in Burlington Magazine, January 1992, pp. 12-19; Booth, B. A., and Mehew, E., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson vol. 4, London, 1994, p. 207; Watson, Andrew, 'Constantine Alexander Ionides and his collection of 19th-Century French Art', Journal of the Scottish Society for Art History vol. 3, 1998, p. 28; C. Georgel, La foret de Fontainebleau: un atelier grandeur nature Paris, 2007, cat. 65.

There are two preparatory drawings in black chalk for this composition: one is in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, dated 1850-1 (Herbert, 1962) and another in Plymouth City Art Gallery. Two further studies possibly related were exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in November 1921 (nos. 94 & 98). According to Kauffmann (p.74), there are possibly two other versions: one is in a private collection, Paris whereas the other's whereabouts remain unknown (authenticity disputed – see Der Kunstwanderer, 1928, p. 75 illus.). Millet seems to have painted this vigorous scene soon after he moved to Barbizon, a village near the forest of Fontainebleau, which attracted a number of artists painting in a broad naturalistic style. The intense colours put this painting close to Honoré Daumier's oeuvre, for which it has been mistaken once (M. Gobin, oral opinion, 1936). Three colours dominate the earthen palette: the intense blue of the near sawyer's trousers, his brilliant white shirt and the red of the third figure in the background. This colour scheme combined with the emphasis put on the strain of the figures may convey a political meaning. For instance, the Winnower, National Gallery, London, exhibited at the Salon in 1848, has been interpreted as an allusion to the Revolution of February that year through the colours worn by the figure, blue, white and red, and the subject matter, separating the grain from the chaff. Whether this picture was a rural interpretation of a former political composition or not remains uncertain but the peasant scenes in se were not exempt of a certain socio-political connotation. The Barbizon members as well as the Realist painters and their critics did not hide their preference for anti-bourgeois subject matters and reaction against the tradition. X-ray photography shows that the scene was painted over an earlier composition, most likely the lost oil sketch for The Republic, unsuccessfully submitted by Millet at a French state competition in 1848. Around this time, Millet made two other sketches entitled L'Egalité and La Fraternité stylistically compatible with the underlying composition.

In 1881, W. E. Henley wrote Jean-François Millet: twenty etchings and woodcuts reproduced in fac-simile and a biographical notice in which this painting surprisingly does not figure.

Rights Owner © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Author Ana Debenedetti



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