Jean-François Millet
French, 1814–1875
Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields
1864

Oil on canvas
31 15/16 x 39 3/8 in. (81.1 x 100 cm)
Inscribed at lower right: J.F. Millet
Henry Field Memorial Collection, 1894.1063

In Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields, which was exhibited in the 1864 Salon in Paris, Jean-François Millet shows two peasant men carrying a newborn calf on a wooden support down a path toward a house where two young girls await their return. The strong, hardworking peasants, with torn clothes and humble living conditions, reflect Millet’s commitment to the Realist aesthetic and his connection to the rural countryside. Born into a middle-class family in the small town of Cherbourg, France in 1814, Millet never lost touch with his rustic upbringing. While living in Barbizon, he became the central figure of an artist’s colony dedicated to images of rural France.

Millet’s Realist portrayal of the life of peasants was not well received by French critics of his day. Writer Ernest Chesneau described the figures in the painting as “types of cretins from the countryside.” Some critics saw a resemblance to biblical scenes, such as the Nativity or a procession carrying the Ark of the Covenant, and the alleged incongruity of an elevated theme illustrated with lowly figures angered audiences. Not everyone was disturbed by Millet’s subjects and style, however. Vincent van Gogh was one of numerous 19th-century artists who admired Millet’s empathic depiction of peasants as noble figures whose virtue was a function of their closeness to nature and, by extension, to God.