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THE VILLAGE OF JEAN FRANÇOIS MILLET
FEW places in the world are more closely associated with names of genius than is Barbizon with the name of Jean François Millet. To think of him and of his work is at once to recall this little peasant village near Paris, on the borders of the Forest of Fontainebleau. But though we know of Barbizon as Millet’s home and the place where he painted all of his most famous pictures, he was born far away on the western coast; and for many dragging, unsuccessful years in the earlier part of his career he lived in Paris. Indeed, he did not desert the city for the country until he had reached the age of thirty-five, and then only by reason of his being driven out by an epidemic of cholera. Barbizon was chosen as a refuge because it was not too far away, and because it already was to some degree a resort of painters, notable among whom was Theodore Rousseau. The village was then very humble and poor. Few strangers ever entered its seclusion, and the little group of artists were the only outsiders. It was a plain farming community, without a church, without a hotel, without anything to give it publicity.
It has changed since, and though most of its permanent inhabitants are still farmers, it is no longer the place to seek for rural retirement. Since the death of its half-starved artists, its fame as their abode has become a lodestone that draws worshipful tourists from all parts of the earth. Another attraction, and one which appeals more powerfully to the general public and does more to build up the growing reputation that Barbizon now has as a pleasure resort, is the fact that within easy access are some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the Forest of Fontainebleau. This brings to the place people of all sorts and conditions, and the majority of them care little or nothing for Millet or Rousseau, or for any other artists. They are usually wholly intent on excursions and picnics in the forest, and the woodland ways are always enlivened by pedestrians, by people driving or on bicycles, and by many automobiles spinning along the smooth, hard main roads with their peculiar throb and clatter.
The region has adapted itself to the needs of the crowd, and there are restaurants here and there in the forest, several big hotels have interpolated themselves among the cottages and farmhouses of the village, and the engines of a steam tramway go creaking and puffing through the one long, narrow street at frequent intervals. This tramway connects the village with the railroad eight miles distant, and it is regarded as an improvement over the omnibuses it supersedes, though the speed attained by its slow, ponderous trains seems hardly to justify such an assumption. The engines are ugly iron monsters, with stumpy, flaring smokestacks that develop an asthmatic violence in their snorting and wheezing which can be heard for miles. The whistles, on the other hand, are mild to the point of puerility. Their warning is for all the world like the notes of a tin dinner-horn. I could hardly believe at first that a blast of steam, and not the breath of human lungs, had produced the weakling sound. But what the whistle lacks in power it makes up in persistence, for it toots with all too faithful constancy from one end of the route to the other. Could anything be contrived more likely than such a tramway to drive away the rural nymphs that charmed the oldtime Barbizon painters? I can fancy Millet’s horror had this grimy creature of the machine-shops invaded the peace of the place in his day.
MILLET'S HOME ON BARBIZON STREET
The wonder is, not that the village and its life retain so little of the rustic, but that, in spite of tramway, competing hotels, and the ebbing and flowing of tourists, they retain so much. The farmhouses are essentially the same as they were a quarter or half a century ago, and the peasantry themselves, so long as they are not actually crowded out, apparently keep on just as if the environment were no different from what it had always been. With the sightseers and pleasure-hunters they have nothing in common, and one affects the other very little. Thus the modern and the ancient are curiously mingled in Barbizon life. Fashion and wealth and the plain farm folk are equally in evidence. The latter go about their tasks unconcerned, and do their work after the time-honored ways handed down to them from their ancestors. If visitors from abroad see in them living figures stepping from the canvases of Dupré or Millet, it is no affair of theirs. They accept this tourist enthusiasm as a sort of craze — an evident weakness past understanding, but which is, happily, harmless.
With the passing years the peasant costume tends to lose its peculiar characteristics, yet perhaps no more here than in most places. It seems to be manifest destiny that we shall all dress alike the world over, in time. The country wants to attire itself after the manner of the town, and the poor as do the rich, independent of costs and conditions. But with the older French people innovations usually find small favor, and in Barbizon men who wear blue blouses and wooden shoes are not uncommon, and white caps or colored kerchiefs are still the customary headgear of the elderly women.
The women are field workers as well as house workers, and you meet them on the street trundling home barrows of grass which they have cut with their sickles, or see them baiting their cows along the roadways. But oftenest they are to be found working with the men, hoeing, weeding, or haying.
The landscape of the fields is in no wise especially interesting. Toward the west is the forest, which includes some low, craggy hills crowded with dark pine woods, but otherwise the view is flat and commonplace. The only variety offered is that of occasional groves and scattered villages. Yet at the time of my visit the fields had a very real charm in their local color. Nowhere else in France did I see such a profusion of flowering weeds. They ran riot all through the wheat and the grass lands, and jewelled the fields almost past believing. Scarlet poppies and blue cornflowers were the most common. They overtopped the grass; but in the wheat they were half concealed, and their motion in the wind made them seem alive — as if they were gay-gowned gypsies in a wood.
A PAUSE IN THE DAY'S LABOR
An acquaintance with Barbizon village reveals a good deal that is attractive in its older parts. Some of the buildings have a picturesque habit of hugging the public way. Others are more retiring and have narrow grounds before them, with massive street walls fortifying their seclusion. These walls are in many places ornamented with vines, and now and then are shadowed by trees reaching over from the house enclosures. The walls are high, and it is only when a gateway is open that you get a look at the yard beyond. Then you very likely see a court full of flower-beds overflowing with green leafage and gay blossoms. Even when the yard is bare, the house walls are not. Many doorways can be glimpsed sprayed about with beautiful rose vines, which in the season are crowded full of flowers. Perhaps the most interesting of the yards are those of the farms, with their litter of straw and tools, wagons and rubbish. A colony of hens is sure to be picking about, and usually there are several dogs, whose chief recreation consists in greeting all strangers with a medley of canine howls.
The houses are low, frequently only a story and a half, and have walls of stone, either the natural gray or brushed over with light tints of whitewash. Roofs are of tile, the older ones mellowed with moss and weather stains. Swallows build under the eaves, and are always flitting and twittering over and about the village. The street is roughly paved, and has on either side a narrow walk that, like those of all French villages, varies in width according to the situation of the buildings along the way. The bordering residences and shops have never conformed to any particular order or angle, and they have a very capricious way of slanting out on the walk or thrusting into it full length, and in spots it is so attenuated that meeting pedestrians have, one or the other, to betake themselves to the street. Blocks or slabs of stone arranged for seats, are commonly to be found against the street walls adjoining home entrances, and on these the people are fond of sitting in the evening and seeing the sights of the highway and getting the news from loitering passers. The scene is usually very peaceful, except when the trains of the tramway are rampaging through the hamlet. Once during my stay there was a fight, but it was short and bloodless. A man who owned a cornet gave a sample of his music one evening on the street, and a neighbor who did not like the playing let the musician know his opinion of his performance. As a result the two came to blows, greatly to the entertainment of all the witnesses save the fighters’ wives. Barbizon has no policeman — not, I believe, because it is exceptionally law-abiding, but because it chances never to have had such an institution from a remote past, and present need is always doubted in the face of ancient custom. So there was nothing to do but for the wives to take on themselves the responsibility of restoring order. Each laid hold on her man, and the combatants were pulled apart. Then the musician with his horn, and the critic, limply mute, were marched off in different directions home. Whether domestic chastisement followed I am unable to say. Certainly some of the French wives have all the muscle and authority needed to administer it if they chose.
The only other unusual incident I recall was an outdoor entertainment given one evening by a troupe of strolling players. These players had been in the village for some days, and had a shooting-gallery down at the far end of the street on the edge of the forest. Near this they now put up a slender framework, and hung from it a trapeze and various ropes and rings, while on the ground round about were set a few benches for the expected audience.
Late in the afternoon one of the men of the troupe went through the village with a drum, making all the noise he could, and announcing with a flourish at every corner and before all the hotels that the coming performance would be something extraordinary, and that it would begin at half-past eight. Some hours later, in the twilight, the drummer sounded his alarum through the village again. On his return to headquarters he slipped off his outer clothing and revealed a red-habited athlete.
The audience was slim — only a group of boys and a few little girls. The man in red seemed not satisfied. He rattled his drum at intervals, trimmed the lights that hung on the framework, and ostentatiously busied himself about nothing. It was nine o’clock when the show began.
First came music, instrumental and vocal, in which the red man played a guitar and a woman in white stood on a bench and sang a dramatic song with many gestures. It was an interesting scene, with the flaring, smoky oil lamps lighting up the players and the lookers-on, while behind rose the lofty gloom of the forest. The song was followed by some gymnastics on the part of the red man, whose feats on the rings and the trapeze were warmly applauded. The audience had meanwhile been growing, and not only children but many older folk stood about. When I left presently and returned to my hotel, I met many groups strolling toward the place of entertainment, and it was evident that by the time the play was over the company would attain a very goodly size.
To the Millet lover every phase of village life and every glimpse of the peasants about their homes or at their field work is full of interest; for Millet not only painted this life, but was himself a part of it. No village dweller was more humble. He wore a peasant’s dress, even to the wooden shoes, and for a part of his day he labored in the garden and fields like other peasants. He lived in a low, dark cottage, no better than the cottages of his peasant neighbors. There were no luxuries in his home, and sometimes he was hard pressed to supply the necessaries. Among the villagers he was social, always had a greeting for those he met, and was ever ready to talk without the least affectation or feeling of superiority.
Millet was very fond of children, and was happy in having a generous number in his own household — his own children at first, and later his grandchildren. After the evening meal he often entertained them with songs and stories, or, what they liked best of all, drew pictures for them. The rudest materials sufficed for these sketches, and an old newspaper and a match dipped in the inkstand did as well as anything. A few magic strokes on the margin of the newspaper would complete a picture and illustrate an incident. Usually the picture was of some farm scene, a peasant driving a loaded cart, a woman feeding a calf, a dog barking at a cow, a girl leading a goat. Sometimes, instead of going to his imagination for a subject, he drew objects in the room — the children themselves, perhaps, or the baby in the cradle being rocked to sleep by its mother. Nor was it only in the evening that Millet gave himself to his children. He was often their companion in his daytime leisure, and liked to have them with him when he walked in the forest. They were true peasant children in their bringing up, and mingled on an equality with the other youngsters of the village.
Millet was not a good business man, and, though considerable sums passed through his hands, he was nearly all his life in very straitened circumstances. He was often behind with his rent, and sometimes induced his landlord to accept pictures instead of money. The landlord in his dealings is said to have been very shrewd, and to have gained possession of many of his tenant’s best pictures. After the artist’s death he turned the family out of the home that had been so long theirs, laid his hands on all Millet’s paintings that the arrears in rent would give excuse for, and, after realizing sixty thousand dollars by a sale of a part of the canvases he had acquired, he shut up the atelier for once and all. At least that is the way the tale runs as told in the village now.
The son and successor of Millet’s landlord has something the same ogreish reputation. Visitors are excluded from the premises, the studio shutters are always closed, and no one is allowed a glimpse of its fabled treasures. All you can see of the studio is its rear, which backs up against the street walk. It is low and white, and an air of silence and gloom overhangs it.
Once I found the gate of the place ajar, and, in spite of all I had heard about its owner, I ventured to go inside. There was small suggestion 9f the Millet days. The grounds are laid out with lawn and trim gravel paths and shade trees, and the dwelling has been much altered. It is no longer the cottage of a peasant, but the country residence of one of the lesser gentry. I staid only a minute or two, for a gardener came running out as if greatly alarmed at the presence of an intruder; and he was plainly ill at ease until he had seen me outside the gate.
Rousseau’s home is only a few doors distant. It is larger than was Millet’s, and sets back from the street under the shadows of some tall trees. It adjoins the little church, and you can approach it only by entering the churchyard. Not until recently did the village have a church, and the edifice is the gift of two actresses who retired a few years ago to Barbizon to spend their last days. One of the actresses is still living, a bent, feeble old woman over eighty. I used to see her several times a day, her cane in her hand, and supported by a white-coiffured nun, shuffling along the street to devotions at her church. The building has the look of a pretty cottage, it is so small and so embowered with the leafage of vines and trees, while the yard in front is a garden of flowers and shrubs. On the borders of the path are several settees, and when the shadows lengthened in the warm afternoons the retreat was cool and inviting. It seemed to be a favorite loitering place of Millet’s son, the only one of the artist’s children still living in the village, for I often saw him there. He has followed his father’s profession, and is said to do very good work.
The nearest house of worship in Millet’s time was at Chailly, two miles distant. He was a devoted attendant, and walked there to service every Sunday. The Chailly church is locally believed to be the one which appears in “The Angelus,” but most probably the landscape of the picture is a memory or vision; and it is the less easy to make good the claim of the Chailly church, as the reality has only a stumpy tower, while a spire appears in the painting. The attitude of prayer taken by the two figures was also more likely to have been a memory than a characteristic of Barbizon, although Millet worked from local models. It would certainly have been more typical of his boyhood region on the remote Norman coast than of the country about Paris, where old customs always weaken first. You see nothing of such observance of the Angelus now at Barbizon, and I do not know that it survives in any part of the republic. The Angelus still rings, morning, noon, and night, but it is recognized only as a signal to begin or stop work, not for prayer.
A NOON LUNCH IN THE FIELD
From the far end of Barbizon street you can see on a near hill-slope within the forest a great boulder with a large bronze tablet inset on its face. When you draw nearer, you find on the tablet a portrait head of Millet, coupled with that of Rousseau. It seems a noble and fitting monument to these two giants of their day and generation, lovers of the forest and of Nature in every mood, prophets and seers who have interpreted the beautiful to all mankind. Their strong, earnest faces have the look of primitive power, and the loneliness of this thinly wooded, sandy, rock-strewn hill is in fitting harmony with the laborious, ill-requited hardship of their lives.
The forest is much criss-crossed with roads and paths, and exploration is easy, the only danger being that of losing one’s way. By the time I left Barbizon I had seen nearly all of it within moderate walking distance. It presents a great deal of variety. You find primeval woodland and parklike groves and pastoral glades, and you find wild gorges strewn with boulders that look like the waste of some ancient geological quarry of the gods. The boulders are not confined to the gorges. You come across them in the woodland almost everywhere — great, loose, rounded rocks, some of them scattered, others lying in rude heaps. The stones are picturesquely waterworn, and when you walk in the twilight of the deep woods, you might fancy they were alive — a migration of vast turtles, hugging the earth in slow onward march.
At times the forest fires run through the woods; the trees are killed, the peaty soil is consumed, and it takes a long time for the charred earth to heal and for new growths to start. Sections recently burnt bristle with dead trees still standing, and their leafless twigs bare against the sky make the scene strange and depressing. But pass out of the burned districts, and you have the company of the lofty pine trees, or of the feathery, graceful beeches, with their sinewy, mottled trunks, or of the great oaks, gnarled and angular, and crowned with dark, heavy foliage. In the opens grow the heather, the broom, and other shrubbery tangling among the lichened rocks; while in the shadowy, sun-flecked forest depths you find a carpet of ferns and thin grasses. Birds sing, pigeons coo, a cuckoo calls far away, and you hear the caw of rooks above the treetops.
Fontainebleau is the largest of all the French forests. You can travel continuously in it in one direction for twenty miles. Its greatest lack is the entire absence of streams or ponds, for the rainfall is wholly absorbed by the sandy soil and chalky rocks. I was told that the forest did boast of a single pool in a certain hilltop hollow, but when a friend who knew the forest undertook to show me this rarity, it had disappeared as the result of recent dry weather. The only surface water he succeeded in finding was a faint dropping at long intervals from an overhanging ledge known as “The Weeping Rock.”
There are deer and other wild creatures in the forest, but I saw nothing of such denizens unless I except some little lizards that I found in my pathway basking in the hot rays of the sun. They had no desire for my acquaintance, and scurried away into the undergrowth with a speed that was astonishing considering their short legs. Human life, if the day was pleasant, always abounded on the forest ways, people on foot and people in vehicles, a ceaseless flow of them from morn till night. One of their favorite resorts in the immediate neighborhood of Barbizon is a cavern of considerable size, famed as the lodging-place of an oldtime band of brigands. So secluded was their forest retreat that they robbed on the highways between Fontainebleau and Paris for nearly three years before their lair was discovered. It is in a lonely place near the summit of a rough, rock-strewn ridge. I planned to visit it, but on the day I made the trip two drunken men, singing and carousing, had taken possession of the vicinity, and they were so like the evil spirits of the old robbers come to haunt the spot that I did not care to encounter them, and turned back.
The forest trees and rocks were reminiscent of Rousseau rather than Millet. The latter’s memory comes home to one more keenly in the fields, for though he was a lover of the forest, it did not appeal to him as did the open farm-lands. It was toward them that he bent his steps when he went for a walk at his favorite hour of twilight. The semi-darkness stimulated his imagination, and the movements of men and creatures on the plain, the sound of bells, the creak of loaded carts were poems to him.
In putting his impressions on canvas he chose to work in low tones, making no appeal to the eye through brilliance of color or the attractiveness of the figures he introduced. Often his types were rude to the verge of ugliness, for he abhorred anything in the least tainted with prettiness or sentimentality. Labor was most often his theme, and to it he added weariness, which he says “is the common lot of humanity.” This view, which was largely the result of his own sombre experiences in life, he painted into his pictures with all the sincerity of a great soul. But if there is always present an undertone of sadness in his work, there is also a vein of sweetness, of courage, and of absolute honesty; and this, taken altogether, was Millet.
CUTTING THISTLES OUT OF THE WHEAT
If you eliminate the personal element from what he did, and go behind the painting to the people he portrayed, you would not find them just what they were as he interpreted them. At any rate those of modern Barbizon are comparatively prosaic and cheerful; yet another master would undoubtedly find in them just as moving subjects as Millet found in their predecessors a generation or two ago.
I think the artists who now make Barbizon their resort and summer working-place have the impression that the region itself has some mystical power to impart inspiration. Several of them were at the hotel where I was staying, and I had a chance to observe their ways. The one who made himself most conspicuous was a young man who must have been a very great genius, if genius consists in length and bushiness of hair. He was a scion of a family of wealth, and on his birthday, shortly before, his mother sent him a present of a thousand francs and asked him to come home to see her. But the present made him forget the accompanying request, and he set to work to enjoy himself. He let loose all his propensities to vice and had an uproarious time. His hotel account rose to three hundred francs a week, and in a fortnight his surplus was sufficiently reduced so that he was ready to return to the ordinary course of his life.
I do not offer him as a fair sample of the present race of Barbizon artists, yet I gathered, from what I heard and saw, that most of them did not take their work very seriously. Their love for their art certainly did not make them labor at it very assiduously. Some of them did not get up till toward noon; and there were those who sat down to lunch at twelve who would continue at the table and chat on after the meal was finished until three. On the slightest excuse — heat, or clouds, or cold, or the least hint of indisposition — they did not work at all. They apparently believed in waiting for inspiration, and they lived up to their belief most perseveringly. The fact is, they come to Barbizon with a vague hope that, through some subtle influence of Barbizon nature and air, the mantle of Millet will fall on them. They do not realize that Millet made the region great, not the region him; that it is what the artist himself has to give, not the time or the place that is creative of noble pictures; and that, unless the painter has what is fine and beautiful in himself, neither Barbizon nor any other place will supply the inspiration that will produce masterpieces.