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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The Butte of Vauquois

My great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts, was a U.S. infantryman in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, near Verdun, France, in 1918.

My Nanna once asked him, "Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?"

He said, "It's a very muddy place."

At 24 years old, B.F. Potts was a soldier in the 137th Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 35th Infantry Division. In September of 1918, the 35th was ordered to take the "Vauquois Zone," a sector with a 2-mile wide front which included the Butte of Vauquois (pronounced /voh-qua/).

The Butte of Vauquois is a hill raising up 290 meters above the surrounding countryside. That's almost 1000 feet, about the height of the Eiffel Tower. The hilltop provides a commanding view of the terrain on three sides, including the strategic railway from Verdun to Paris.

The German army moved into Vauquois in early September 1914 at the beginning of the war. By the end of the month, the French tried to retake the hill and the battle for the Butte of Vauquois began. The battle here would rage for four long years.

Before the war, a couple hundred people lived in the village of Vauquois at the top of the hill. From the start of the battle until the end, the hilltop was showered with artillery. In the spring of 1915, when ground offensives became ineffective, a war of mine-and-counter-mine began. 

Summit of the Butte of Vauquois
Summit of the Butte of Vauquois, August 2009, showing German trenches (foreground), mine craters (middleground) and the French monument to the combatants and the dead of Vauquois (background)

After several months in place, the German troops had constructed a network of trenches that, coupled with the steep terrain, made a formidable defense against ground attack. So the French would dig a tunnel from a protected side of the hill to a position they gaged to be beneath the enemy trenches, pack in a few tons of explosives, light the fuse and run like hell. The resulting explosion would create a crater on the surface, its size roughly corresponding to the amount of explosives used.

That's what "mining" means to a ground army. When the enemy catches on to what you're doing and starts listening to the ground and making their own tunnels beneath your tunnels and packing explosives in them, that's what they call "counter-mining."

The largest mine used at Vauquois was set by the Germans. It contained 60 tons of explosives. It made a surface crater 80 feet deep and 300 feet wide and killed 108 French soldiers in two lines of trenches. The war of mine-and-counter-mine went on for three years, until April of 1918.

By the time Private Potts arrived in September, France must have looked like a very muddy place indeed.

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Sources: I put together this article from a few photocopied pages of a larger work of family genealogy and history assembled by my great uncle, John Wesley Potts, a visit to the area and its museums in 2009, plus a few pages of Wikipedia for some details.

After the war, the ground was littered with explosives and still is today. The former inhabitants of the hilltop village re-established their community at the foot of the hill.

The website of the Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region has a couple of nice photos and information on visiting the site.

The guided tour of the underground galleries where the mine war took place is enlightening, educational and horrific.

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