- Jean-François MIllet
- Chasse aux oiseaux par lumière des torches
(Hunting Birds by Torchlight)
- stamped J. F. Millet (Lugt 1816; Robert L. Herbert's 1894G) (lower left)
- charcoal heightened with white chalk on rose-gray canvas
- 22 3/8 by 28 in.
- 57 by 71 cm
Félix Gérard (acquired at the above sale)
Artemis Gallery, London
American Private Collector (and sold, Christie's, New York, May 5, 1998, lot 32, illustrated)
Acquired at the above sale
Robert L. Herbert, Jean-François Millet, exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris, 1975, p. 292
From William Low, a young American painter who visited Millet in his Barbizon studio during 1873-1874, we learn that Hunting Birds by Torchlight (along with the related painting, Bird's-Nesters, 1874, Philadelphia Museum of Art, which reverses the composition, fig. 1) depicts a scene out of the artist’s early childhood on the Cotentin coast of Normandy. Millet spoke to Low of going out at night with other peasants of his tiny Gruchy hamlet to hunt the flocks of wild pigeons that migrated across the Channel. Carrying great torches to blind the startled birds, and swinging heavy clubs to stun them, the older men brought down the pigeons which children scrambling on the ground gathered up into sacks. For peasants living a hard existence, this communal hunt was one of the few sources of meat in a limited diet.
Without Low’s testament for McClure’s Magazine (May 1896), it would be very difficult to know what to make of Hunting Birds by Torchlight. The maelstrom of flickering torches, waving clubs, and spinning hunters is quite unlike anything else in the solid, stable rural world of Millet’s art. For thirty-five years he had struggled to adapt traditional French artistic values emphasizing sculptural forms and clear narrative unity to the untraditional subjects of French peasant life. And side by side with Hunting Birds by Torchlight, Millet worked as well on the monumental Haystacks of The Metropolitan Museum of Art during the last months of his life. Yet in Hunting Birds, the certainties and spatial clarity of those works are set aside for an impenetrable space of shifting light and shadow in which two archetypal Millet subjects, the hard-working peasant and the beautiful birds of the field, come into direct and uneven conflict. As he faced his own death, Millet raged against the inevitability of fate and the blindness that commands so many of man’s actions.
Millet worked out the positions of the figures in numerous small pen and ink sketches (coll. Cabinet des dessins, The Louvre, Paris; and others now lost) and in two fuller pencil and crayon compositions (Indianapolis Museum of Art and the London art market, 1980s) that record the fury with which Millet slashed in the flickering light of the background. Another under-drawing on canvas shows the figures in a smaller, more compact space.
We would like to thank Alexandra R. Murphy for confirming the authenticity of this lot and for writing this catalogue entry.