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Jean-Fran?ois Millet, 1814-1875

The Sheepfold, Moonlight

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

Perhaps encouraged by his developing friendship with Théodore Rousseau (cat. no. 94), Jean-François Millet began to concentrate more on landscape settings in the mid-1850s. The Sheepfold, Moonlight represents a nocturnal scene on the plain that extended outside the artist's studio between the villages of Barbizon and Chailly. Millet shows a solitary, itinerant shepherd encouraging his flock of sheep into a portable pen. To the left is the movable hut where the shepherd would sleep between April and November, allowing him to act as the nightly guardian of his flock. Such mysteriously lit drawings would later appeal greatly to Georges Seurat (cat. no. 97).

Millet produced at least five versions of The Sheepfold, Moonlight, in oil, pastel, and charcoal. The earliest is probably the painting in the Walters Art Museum, which has been dated to ca. 1856-58. The Walters drawing can be considered a contemporary or later variant and has been dated by Robert Herbert to ca. 1858-60.2 Although the early provenance of the drawing is unclear, its highly finished nature, as well as the signature at top right, indicates that it is one of the many presentation drawings Millet produced for the Parisian art market in the 1850s.3 Millet returned to the subject in later variants, including an oil painting (Musée du Louvre) dating from 1861 and a large-scale pastel (Burrell Collection, Glasgow) dating from 1868. The Walters drawing is unique in Millet's treatment of the theme as it is the only work in which he placed the hut to the left and the moon to the right; moreover, there are also fewer sheep and more pickets in the fence.

Millet's fascination with the life of the itinerant shepherd is evident in several other works showing the shepherd bringing home his flock at sunset, shearing sheep, or overseeing his flock in the noonday heat.4 Sheepfold, Moonlight is unusual because the focus is on the landscape and light effect rather than on the shepherd himself. Millet's interest in moonlight effects is also evident in other drawings from the mid-1850s, such as the Lobstermen (Musée du Louvre), and paintings such as Starry Night (Yale University Art Gallery), which has been described as the "most accurate depiction of a night sky painted in the nineteenth century."5 Research has indeed demonstrated Millet's interest in astronomy and his probable familiarity with articles on the subject in contemporary magazines.6 In Sheepfold, Moonlight, the pitch-black plain is illuminated by the single light source of the waning, gibbous moon (represented with more than half but not all of the disc illuminated), which highlights the backs of the sheep, blurs their forms, and silhouettes the pickets of the fold.

According to Alfred Sensier, Millet later described his subject in words that evoke the austere intensity of his relationship to nature:

Oh, how I wish I could make those who see my work feel the splendors and terrors of the night! One ought to be able to make people hear the songs, the silences and murmurings of the air. They should feel the infinite. Is there not something terrible in thinking of these lights which rise and disappear, century after century, without varying? They light both the joys and sorrows of men, and when our world goes to pieces, the beneficent sun will watch without pity the universal desolation.7

The subject of the sheepfold in moonlight was treated by a number of Millet's contemporaries, including Charles-François Daubigny and Charles-Emile Jacque, but none was able to invest the subject with the same solemnity.8

William Walters' interest in Millet is evident from his acquisition of the major paintings The Potato Harvest (WAM 37.115) and The Sheepfold, Moonlight (WAM 37.30), as well as significant drawings, including The Sower (WAM 37.905), The Shepherdess (WAM 37.906), and The Angelus (WAM 37.903). Simon Kelly

1. See R. Herbert, Jean-François Millet (London, 1976), 178.

2. The first owner of the work appears to have been Emile Gavet, the architect and prominent collector of Millet's work. We do not know when Gavet acquired the drawing.

3. See, for example, Return of the Flock (private collection, Japan), Falling Leaves (Corcoran Gallery of Art), and Shepherd Minding His Sheep(The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh). At the Salon of 1853, Millet showed Un berger, effet de soir(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and, at the Salon of 1863, Un berger ramenant son troupeau(private collection).

4. See A. Sheon, "French Art and Science in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Some Points of Contact," Art Quarterly 34 (Winter 1971): 451.

5. Ibid.

6. See A. Sensier, Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter (Boston, 1881), 120-23.

7. See, for example, Daubigny's etching of 1846, The Little Sheepfold.

Medium: charcoal on beige, moderately thick, slightly textured wove paper
Dimensions: height: 22.8 cm, width: 33 cm.
Date: ca. 1867
Category: genre
Subject: peasant | work
Inscriptions and Markings: "J.F. Millet" in charcoal in upper right
Exhibition History: Drawn into the Light: Jean-Fran?ois Millet, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, MA, 1999-2000, no. 49, p. 24; A Discerning Eye: Nineteenth-century Drawings and Watercolors, Academy of the Arts, Easton, MD, 1998-99; French Master Drawings, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1997-98; French Masterworks on Paper, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1992; Barye Bronzes and Paintings, American Art Gallery, New York, 1889, no. 636, p. 102
Bibliography: Collection of W.T. Walters: Pictures. Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery. 1884.: p. 91. American Art Gallery. Catalogue of the Works of Antoine-Louis Barye. New York: J.J. Little & Co.. 1889.: p. 102. Gruelle, Richard B. Notes: Critical and Biographical: Collection of W.T. Walters. Indianapolis: Bowles. 1895.: p. 173. Walters Art Gallery. The Walters Collection. Baltimore: Friedenwald Co.. 1903.: p. 108. Walters Art Gallery. Catalogue of Paintings. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore. 1909.: p. 152. Walters Art Gallery. Catalogue of Paintings. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore. 1929.: p. 139. Murphy, Alexandra, et. al. Jean-Fran?ois Millet: Drawn into the Light. Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Institute of Art. 1999.: p. 24.
Related Works: Related painting in the Mus?e du Louvre; pastel in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow; painting in the Walters Art Museum (37.30), study from Millet's widow's sale, 1894, lot no.19, location unknown.
Provenance: William T. Walters (1819-1894), Baltimore, before 1884.
Collection: The Walters Art Museum
Credit Line: Acquired by William T. Walters
Object Number: WAM 37.904