One of the most influential French artists of the 19th century was Jean-François Millet. Friday 13th of September 2019, an exhibition opens at The Hague’s Mesdag Collection showing his importance  to artists of the Hague School. A unique exhibition, for it contains fragile works like sketches and pastels not often exhibited.

The Mesdag Collection contains the home and museum of Willem and Sientje Mesdag. The artists also collected art. They owned the largest collection of works by Millet in the Netherlands.

This collection of over 30 works by Millet, included oil paintings, pastels, sketches, prints and unfinished works. Being artists themselves, they were also interested in Millet’s creative process. Unfortunately, this collection was broken up once WIllem Mesdag’s died.

Now works are shown which were once in this collection. Visitors also come across works, specifically loaned for this exhibition by important Dutch museums including the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Kröller-Müller Museum, as well as two American ones. Millet influenced artists like Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve, Matthijs Maris, Willem Roelofs, B.J. Blommers, D.A. Constant Artz.

Millet, son of a Normandy farmer, was familiar with the harsh rural life from an early age. Yet he managed to teach himself French and Latin, developed a taste for literature and nursed his artistic talents. After lessons from local artists, he attended the important Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He studied works by other great artists including Michelangelo, Poussin, Rembrandt. Yet he was interested in portraying poor rural people in a dignified manner. As he himself stated: “Peasant subjects suit my temperament best; … the human side is what touches me most.”

Millet moved from Paris to Barbizon, while his career took off. In 1870, he was elected member of the Paris Salon jury. When Willem Mesdag entered a work for this important Salon, he was awarded a medal.

Mesdag received a small card with a scribbled congratulation from Millet. Millet being one of Mesdag’s heroes, Mesdag had it framed and prominently displayed in his home. This card is in the exhibition’s first room. Here, visitors are provided with a time-line, background information and find works once owned by the Mesdags.

Two other exhibition rooms focus on the theme of rural landscapes and genre paintings. The room on landscapes show Millet’s influence clearly. Jozef Israëls, for instance, was often called the “Dutch Millet”.

Israëls “The Shepherd’s Prayer” (one of the loans from American museums), is clearly inspired by Millet’s famous “The Angelus”. The English exhibition text near Roelofs’ “Rainbow” explains its relation to Millet’s “Spring”, now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Upstairs are two more exhibition rooms. In the first, visitors find “genre” works by Millet. He admired Dutch Golden Age interiors, but it is clear his works also contain social criticism. Work by Hague School artists show Millet’s influence. Sometimes, this is expressed through related topics like mothers feeding children, or women hanging up laundry. In another works, Millet copied a figure after a work by Michael Angelo, which in turn inspired a Haagse School artist.

The last exhibition room is full of old photos. These show the interior of Sientje and Willem Mesdag’s home. Here works in this exhibition can be seen decorating their walls. Included is a drawing, Millet’s “Women carrying Faggots” – not in this exhibition.

It will be displayed at a second, Millet-exhibition tracing his influence beyond the Hague School. This exhibition will open in a few weeks time, at the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum.

Meanwhile, visitors to the The Hague Mesdag Collection will miss one Millet painting! It will be exhibited in the Amsterdam exhibition. Not that there is an empty spot on a wall. The original frame contains a contemporary work by artist Hellen van Meene.

Kate visited on behalf of The Hague Online. “Millet and the Haagse School” welcomes visitors from 13th of September 2019 till 5th of January 2020. When planning your visit, please check the museum’s website, as it opens only a few afternoons each week.


Image courtesy Mesdag Collection, loan by the Kröller Müller Museum, Otterloo in this exhibition: Jean-François Millet “End of the hamlet Grucy”, 1854