The Making of a Fresco

“As far as Artimus knew, his would be the first attempt to actually recreate the cartoon as an authentic fresco. This was no small undertaking, nor was it a temporary commitment. A fresco was created by covering a large surface, usually a wall, in fresh plaster. The pigments would then be applied directly to the wall while the plaster was wet. Done improperly, the work could mildew if the mix was too wet, or reject the pigment and flake if it was too dry. Worse, the colors might shift as the plaster dried.”

—James A. Owen, The Barbizon Diaries

One of my first questions when contemplating any possible truth behind the legend of The Millet Fresco is this: Who among the assembled artists had the skill to make a fresco?

In The Dictionary of Art (Vol 11, Grove 1996), Jane Turner corroborates Owen’s description of the process. Turner also says that the artist generally employed a team of workmen:

“Fresco painting was technically demanding and was usually carried out on a large scale, so the painter had to be accurate in drawing up his composition and capable of organizing a team of skilled hands, from the masons to the assistant painters who were assigned the less important parts of the work.” (p. 760)

The description seems the antithesis of the lone landscape painter in a straw hat, easel strapped over a shoulder, box of paints in hand, ambling along a country road to a favorite meadow with a pleasant view.

Dictionnaire de l'art  de la curiosité et du bibelot 1883Not that it wouldn’t have been possible for any of the Barbizon painters to attempt such a work. They were all trained artists. Only I had hoped to find one of them had particular experience in fresco painting—or at least a mentor who did, so as to make a convenient target for further study. Cursory research into the lives of the principle characters mentioned in the legend reveals no obvious connection to any fresco painters.

The easiest way to avoid the question is to assume that when they spoke of a fresco the Barbizon painters referred to any kind of mural, no matter the technique.

The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Alain Rey, 1992) summarizes the origin of the French word and its evolution. In French, the term peinture à fresque [pronounced fresk] was borrowed in 1550 from the Italian dipingere a fresco, literally: painting freshly.

(In English the awkward literal translation painting freshly is replaced by painting in fresco. This is not the same as alfresco, also from Italian, which is used for dining as well as painting outdoors.)

By 1669, the French word fresque was used alone to indicate a mural painted with pigment on fresh plaster. Then, as soon as the end of the next decade (1680), though technically incorrect, fresque as any large wall painting came into general usage.

Furthermore, writing in the 1880s—thus contemporary to our would-be fresco painters—French architect Ernest Bosc describes the pigment on fresh plaster method. However, Bosc then goes on to say, “By extension, we use this term for wall paintings using encaustic (beeswax and resin) or wax, oil paint or by stereochromy.” (Dictionnaire de l'art. Firmin-Didot 1883. Translation mine)

So it’s within the realm of possibility that the Barbizon painters planned to make a mural using techniques more familiar to them.

However, in The Barbizon Diaries as well as in my discussions with the author, James Owen insists that, according to the legend told to him by his Uncle Clair, the work was to be a real fresco, pigment on fresh plaster. Supposedly, its difficulty is the reason Millet had refused earlier requests to undertake such an endeavor.

Therefore, in my research, I’ll keep an open mind and allow both possibilities: a pigment-on-fresh-plaster fresco as well as any other large wall painting.

As a side note, I find it as ironic as it is appropriate that these Realist painters, rebels against Neoclassicism, would choose to produce a monumental work in a classical medium.

Hemicycle d'honneur by Paul Delaroche

Hemicycle d’honneur by Paul Delaroche, 1837-41

This fresco à la cire (wax) covers a hemi-circular wall approximately 15 feet high, 80 feet wide at l’École des baux arts in Parisour next stop on A Pilgrimage to Barbizon.

___
Sources:

The Dictionary of Art, Vol. 11. Jane Turner, editor. New York: Grove, 1996.

Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (Historical Dictionary of the French Language). Alain Rey, editor. Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1992.

Dictionnaire de l'art, de la curiosité et du bibelot (Dictionary of Art, Curiosity, and Ornament). Ernest Bosc, editor. Paris: Librairie de Firmin-Didot et Cie., 1883.

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Mouchel and Langlois, Cherbourg Tutors

Bon Dumoucel dit Mouchel
Self-portrait, Bon Dumoucel “dit” Mouchel

“You don’t mean to tell me that this young man made those drawings by himself!” said Mouchel.

The elder Millet defended his affirmation, saying he watched his son draw them. He had brought Jean-François to see this Cherbourg artist who was also a tutor. They showed him two drawings the boy had made, hoping Mouchel would take him on as pupil.

The younger Millet insisted on his sole authorship, and Mouchel was eventually convinced.

“Well, then,” he said to the father, “all I can say is, you will be damned for having kept him so long at the plough, for your boy has the making of a great painter in him.” (Cartwright 32)

Thus, Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg. Of his first tutors, history records little. Alfred Sensier devotes a few pages to these two characters in his Millet biography. Those pages, including footnotes added by the editor Paul Mantz, may well have saved the names of Bon Dumoucel, called “Mouchel,” and Lucien-Théophile Langlois from history’s oubliette. Though my research is far from exhaustive, Sensier’s work is the source of every other reference to them I’ve so far found.

Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue à Cherbourg - Mouchel
Poissonnerie de la Grande-Rue de Cherbourg, Mouchel, 1836; currently at the Thomas Henry Museum

Sensier describes Mouchel as a curious character. A self-taught artist, he followed the neoclassical School of Jacques-Louis David. He began many large canvases but didn’t always finish them. On request of local clergy, he painted alter-pieces, which he then donated to the church.

Mouchel taught at his home-studio in a small valley on the edge of town, where he lived with his wife. He worked a garden beside a mill and had a pet pig whose language he understood and could speak. Sensier, less bold, writes, “pretended to understand” (emphasis mine).

As Millet’s tutor, he recognized genius in the young man and gave him free rein: “Draw what you like; choose anything of mine that you like to copy; follow your own inclination, and above all go to the Museum.” (Cartwright 33)

It was at the Thomas Henry Museum where a messenger found Jean-François to inform him of his father’s illness.

Months later, Millet returned to Cherbourg under another tutor. Théophile Langlois de Chévreville was a trained artist, student of Antoine-Jean Gros, also neoclassical. During his own studies, Langlois had traveled to Greece and Italy, a fact he made sure everyone knew. He was considered as Cherbourg’s best painter. Some years later, he would become a drawing professor at the town college.

Like Mouchel, seeing that he didn’t have much to teach the young man, Langlois gave his student much the same treatment as his predecessor. “Go to the Museum,” was a common refrain.

After less than a year, Langlois penned a letter to the Cherbourg town council to make Millet’s case. In the letter, he suggested that the town provide the promising artist with a scholarship to study in Paris. So confident was he in Millet’s talent, he dared to predict the future:

“Allow me, gentlemen, for once, to lift the veil of the future, and to promise you a place in the memory of mankind, if you help in this manner to endow our country with another great man.”

In January of 1837 with a Cherbourg scholarship of 600 francs, Jean-François Millet bid farewell to his mother and grandmother at Gruchy and rode by carriage to Paris.


Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, His Life and Letters by Julia Cartwright (London: Swan Sonnenshein & Co., 1896).

Biographical information from La vie et l’oeuvre de Jean-François Millet by Alfred Sensier (Paris: A. Quantin, 1881).

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Thomas Henry Museum

Twenty year-old Jean-François Millet went to study painting in Cherbourg, where some 70 years previously Thomas Henry was born.

Though educated in commerce, Henry had a taste for art. In his early career he went to Saint-Domingue, a lucrative French colony on the island of Hispaniola. He was a merchant there until a successful slave revolt, now known as the Haitian Revolution, put an end to the colony and created the Empire of Haiti in 1804.

The Conversion of Saint Augustin
The Conversion of Saint Augustin by Fra Angelico, ca. 1430; donated to the town of Cherbourg by Thomas Henry, 1835

Having proved himself in business, back in France Henry went to Paris and became a painting restorer, then an accomplished artist as well as a successful art dealer. From this time onward he collected paintings and sculptures from the major movements in Western European art of the previous four centuries. He became a celebrated connoisseur, his opinion of a work’s provenance and of its quality being highly regarded.

By 1831, he had lost both sons and sensed his own life’s end. He began donating—anonymously—portions of his collection to his native town.

La Justice
La Justice, original by Pierre Subleyras, ca. 1740 (left); copy by Jean-François Millet, 1837

After receiving a significant number of these artworks, the Cherbourg town council decided to open a museum. An investigation revealed the donor’s name, and the Musée Thomas Henry opened its doors in 1835. Among its first visitors was Jean-François Millet, who came to copy the works of the masters as part of his studies.

Petit génie de la peinture
Petit génie de la peinture (Little genius of painting), Jean-François Millet ca. 1842; part of the Ono donation, as was Millet’s Justice above

A later donation, that of Millet’s nephew Paul Ono in 1915, would add to the museum’s collection a large number of Millet’s early paintings. Among them were many of the student artist’s copies, which museum visitors can see beside the original.

Today, the Thomas Henry Museum holds the third largest Millet collection in the world.

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Young J. F. Millet, Road to Success

Maison où est né Millet
House where Millet was born.
(Pastel from the collection of Mr. Feuardent father.)
Sensier 3

That the young Millet grew up bigger than the other kids his age and strong and curious, that his father was a farmer like his grandfather, that he was the oldest son of eight children and so was obliged to become a farmer as well, that he enjoyed the work and didn’t regret this duty, that he learned Latin and read the Bible and the Confessions of Saint Augustin in that language, that he loved to draw and had a natural talent for it—all this has little bearing on the legend which would be born nearer the end of his life than its beginning. 

Gruchy
Apart from cars on paved roads and a rooftop antenna, modern day Gruchy appears much the same as in the early nineteenth century

However, within the summary of the painter’s youth are two separate lessons concerning success: How much counts the encouragement of our loved ones, and how narrow is the window of opportunity.

At eighteen, Jean-François talked with his father about his desire to become an artist. His father said:

“My poor François, I see thou art troubled by the idea. I should gladly have sent you to have the trade of painting taught you, which they say is so fine, but you are the oldest boy, and I could not spare you; now that your brothers are older, I do not wish to prevent you from learning that which you are so anxious to know.” (Sensier 40)

Millet’s birthplace
Inside the Millet home now a museum

So with his father’s encouragement, he went to Cherbourg to study painting. But only two months later the father was dying of a sudden illness. The son returned to Gruchy to sit at the deathbed.

Although the short time in Cherbourg had lit the passion within him, after his father’s death, Jean-François succumbed to his sense of family duty and stayed to run the farm. It was only by his grandmother’s insistence that he returned to his destiny:

“My François, you must accept the will of God; your father, my Jean-Louis, said you should be a painter; obey him, and go back to Cherbourg.” (Sensier 42)

How much counts the encouragement of loved ones toward our success! How narrow the window of opportunity!

 


This is the latest episode in A Pilgrimage to Barbizon. Follow this link to catch up on previous episodes (listed in chronological order). On Wednesday we’ll follow the fledgling painter to Cherbourg. 

Quoted dialog from Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter. Alfred Sensier, Helena de Kay translator. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881.

Image “House where Millet was born” from Sensier’s original work, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet. Paris: A. Quantin, 1881.

 

The House by the Well at Gruchy
The House by the Well at Gruchy,
painting by Jean-François Millet, 1864

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Gruchy-Gréville, Normandy, 1814

France in 1814 was a tumultuous country. The French Revolution, begun 25 years before, ended in 1799, but the Napoléonic wars followed. A young artillery officer during the revolution, a certain Bonaparte rose to power and established the First French Empire in 1804. Napoléon I fought a series of wars with his European neighbors then, in 1812, invaded Russia.

 

French Empire 1811Map of the French Empire and Central Europe in 1811
From The Cambridge Modern History Atlas. Ward, Prothero, Leathes editors. Cambridge: University Press, 1912 (455-6).

 

Allying with Prussia and Austria, Russia responded in kind. The allies captured Paris in the spring of 1814. Forcing the emperor to abdicate, they sent Napoléon into exile on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy and near his home in Corsica. He would escape the island the following year and return to France to continue his aggression. Within a few months, Napoléon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. This time, he was exiled to Saint Helena, a small island in the middle of the South Atlantic. He didn’t escape again.

Meanwhile, in 1814, the Parisian “bistro” (Russian for “quickly”) was named by occupying soldiers pressed for time, immigrant American protestants established the American Church in Paris, and the long process of moving bones from the Holy Innocents Cemetery to the catacombs below Denfert-Rochereau was completed.

All this may have seemed far removed from Gruchy hamlet in the commune of Gréville on the Normandy coast, a week’s carriage ride north of Paris. Situated on the Cotentin Peninsula, which protrudes into the English Channel, Gruchy boasted not more than 25 thatched-roofed homes. These farmhouses lined either side of a single street, wide as a buggy. Fields beyond gave way to pastures and woodlands. Into this pastoral landscape was born Jean-François Millet, who would become known as the peasant painter.

Normandy Coast near GruchyOn the Normandy coast near Gruchy wind and rain are not uncommon in any season; late July 2016, this was the day’s best weather

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Cartoon

  Cartoon

“Drawings done with the intention of later expanding them into full-sized frescoes were called cartoons; Artimus believed that the fragile, discolored sheet which he held in his hands was just such a document. More, he believed that the Rousseau and Vincent alluded to in the scribblings on the reverse side of the vellum were in fact the landscape artist Theodore Rousseau, and the mad master Expressionist, Vincent van Gogh. The cartoon itself, he believed, had been drawn by a contemporary of Rousseau’s, Jean-François Millet, and consequently became known, if somewhat inaccurately, as The Millet Fresco.”

    — James A. Owen, The Barbizon Diaries, p. 4

The image above is a scan of my own rendition of the fresco sketch, or cartoon, from the description in the Prologue of The Barbizon Diaries.

The cartoon’s scale shows a fresco 15 feet high by 36 feet wide. I wanted to impress the size and proportion on my mind so, were I to pass by it, I might recognize a surface that could take a painting so large. A quick outline on graph paper was enough. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to recreate an artifact.

I didn’t have any charcoal handy. Instead, I used a blunt 9B graphite pencil with indiscriminate smudges. I imagined only hints of a scene that Millet and company might have come up with. The vellum I aged the old-fashioned way: with coffee. Some campaigners soak their ancient maps and documents in black tea to get the look of antiquity. I prefer the richer tones of arabica.


Owen, James A., The Barbizon Diaries: A Meditation on Will, Purpose, and the Value Of Stories (The Meditations Book 2). Coppervale Press, 2016.

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Itinerary

“[Millet] is a laborer who loves his field — plows, sows, and reaps it. His field is art. His inspiration is life, is nature — which he loved with all his strength.”

    — Alfred Sensier, friend and biographer* of Jean-François Millet


Barbizon is only a half-hour drive south of base camp. However, I’d like to get a better idea about the artist who allegedly made the fresco sketch. Some research reveals the waypoints along the journey to Barbizon. 

Gruchy

La maison au puits a gruchy
La maison au puits à Gruchy, painting by Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet was a native of Gruchy, a hamlet of Gréville in Normandy. He lived and worked on the family farm to adulthood. The pastoral scenes of his youth would later serve as inspiration for his most famous paintings.

Cherbourg

Encouraged by his father at age 20, Millet left home to study painting in neighboring Cherbourg. An art museum had just opened in that town. Millet often went there to copy the works of the master painters as part of his studies. Today, the Thomas Henry Museum holds the third largest collection of Millet paintings.

Paris

During three years at Cherbourg, Millet made such an impression on the community that they gave him a stipend to study in Paris. At L’école de Baux Arts (school of fine arts), Millet studied under Paul Delarouche. Later, he also had his own studio in the city. I’ll try to find it.

Barbizon, Le village des peintres

Self-portrait Jean-François Millet
Self-portrait, Jean-François Millet

Whether it was the third French revolution of 1848, an outbreak of cholera in the city, the general urban atmosphere or a combination there of, in 1849 Millet took his family to a village of woodcutters on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. By the end of the century it would be known as “the village of painters.”

At his home studio in Barbizon, he painted The Angelus. A few doors down the main street is the inn where the meeting of would-be frescoists supposedly took place, the Auberge Siron (today called the Hôtel de Bas-Bréau).

Millet lived there for the last 26 years of his life. He is buried in the local cemetery of Chailly-en-Bière.

Itinerary
Itinerary: Gruchy - Cherbourg - Paris - Barbizon

 

*Sensier, Alfred, Jean-François Millet, Peasant and Painter (translated by Helena de Kay). Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1881.

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The Legend of The Millet Fresco

“You don’t mean the Jean-François Millet who painted The Angelus?” she said.

I was trying to tell Catherine a fantastic story about an artist I had just read in a book and was making a mess of it. There were many details and I had the order of their presentation all wrong. I showed her the book cover.

Cover of The Barbizon Diaries
Cover of The Barbizon Diaries by James A. Owen, showing Millet's Sower

The Sower was one of his paintings,” I said. “He had a studio in Barbizon.”

“That’s him. Millet is one of the great French landscape painters and L’angélus,” she used the French name, “is his most famous painting. You say your friend, James, is related to him?”

“Distantly.”

 

From the second and third books of James A. Owen’s Meditations Trilogy, the story of The Millet Fresco is really more of a legend. According to the author’s own admission, it is rumor and hearsay from across the ocean and passed down through the generations on his mother’s side of the family. It's intriguing, nonetheless.

In an effort to get it more or less correct, I’ll summarize the story, first, then I’ll add some details.

A group of painters met at an inn in rural France where they decided to make a fresco. The project apparently never got past the planning stage. However, a journalist present at the meeting took some notes that described the meeting and the sketch one of the artists made of the planned fresco. The notes eventually came into the hands of a distant American cousin of the sketch-making artist. This cousin, a painter himself, was hooked on the idea of painting the fresco and so spent the rest of his life searching for the sketch described in the journalist’s notes. He never found it.

A mundane story, perhaps, but now the details.

According to Owen, the meeting of the painters took place following dinner one evening at an inn located in the French village of Barbizon. The date is unknown, though it may have been sometime during the 1870’s. Among the group was Vincent van Gogh and other now famous artists such as Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat, in addition to Jean-François Millet. It was Millet who supposedly made the sketch of the planned fresco in collaboration with the others.

Robert Louis Stevenson was the note-taking journalist, and Millet’s distant American cousin who eventually got hold of Stevenson’s notes of the evening was named Francis Davis Millet. Finally, Stevenson’s notes came to F.D. Millet by way of none other than Mark Twain.

From mundane to extraordinary, and it gets better.

Portrait_of_Francis_Davis_Millet
Portrait of Francis Davis Millet by George du Maurier, from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1889

Though probably the least well-known of the names above, Francis Davis Millet is a notable character in his own right. In addition to painter, we can also count sculptor, architect, journalist and war correspondent among the man’s many talents. He traveled as far as Russia and the South Pacific, ostensibly on journalistic business, though possibly in search of the fresco sketch. In 1912 on a trip from Europe to New York, Millet booked passage on the maiden voyage of the largest ocean cruise liner ever put to sea at that time, the Titanic. He did not survive its sinking in the North Atlantic, nor presumably did Stevenson’s notes.

Again, Owen admits that the story is a family legend. There is no hard evidence of any truth to it whatsoever. Explorers know, however, that a legend often has a kernel of truth hidden inside it, like the grain of sand at the center of a pearl. During my journey to Barbizon, I will certainly keep an eye out for it.

 

Despite my focus here on the legend of The Millet Fresco, James A. Owen’s Meditations Trilogy is about finding and pursuing your purpose in life. The hardcover books, Drawing out the Dragons, The Barbizon Diaries and The Grand Design, are soon to be available by Coppervale Press in a slipcase set.

James A. Owen's Meditations Trilogy

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L'angélus

  L'angélus


The church bell tolls the hour across a somber field
Under summer evening’s hazy, slanted light.
The day’s potato harvest at their feet between,
A woman and a man in pra’er devotion stand.
Their daily tools of toil aside them idly lain
And crying birds in flight above on higher plane.

Signaled three times daily in previous centuries by the local church bell, the Angelus is a prayer devotion in the Catholic faith. Its name refers to the angel Gabriel who brought rather astonishing news to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).

In 1859, French painter Jean-François Millet captured the solemn moment in one of his most famous paintings named after the prayer.

I remember learning about the prayer and the painting in Art History class. Nineteenth century Europe was a different time, a different place and both so far away from Newberry, South Carolina, in the early 1990s that it cried, like the birds in flight above, straight over my head.

Having been recently reminded of these things, I did some research and discovered that L’angélus, the painting, currently resides at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. No more so far away.

Furthermore, I learned that the painter himself lived and worked in a village a half-hour drive south of here. And so begins my pilgrimage to Barbizon.

L'angélusPhotograph of L'angélus by Jean-François Millet at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

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