Jean-François Millet, Hunting Birds at Night, 1874
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) was a French painter of the Barbizon School. The Barbizon group was devoted to accuracy in its depictions of rural peasant life and realism in landscapes. Millet was one of the founders of the movement, known for his soft lighting, scenes of peasant farmers, and devotion to visual and emotional realism. He has several very famous paintings, such as The Gleaners (1857), The Sower (1850), and The Angelus (1859). Hunting Birds at Night (also known as Bird's-nesters) struck me quite differently. It is a painting of an entirely different character and was Millet's last work. The scene is drawn of Millet's own childhood memories of bird hunters blinding large flocks of pigeons with torchlight and then clubbing them. Despite this grisly subject matter, the painting has an ecstatic quality and the light seems almost supernatural. Millet uses very different brushwork here, looser and softer, especially evident in the rendering of the birds. By painting each bird rather generally, rendering their shape rather than their actual characteristics, Millet communicated the vast size of this flock, and adds to the murkiness of the scene; they almost seem like clouds or waves emanating from the torchlight. One of Millet's greatest gifts was his ability to sympathize with his subjects and communicate their hardship. In this painting he has achieved the same feat, only it is the birds whose struggle is felt. As they flock toward their death, Millet painted a stunningly beautiful threnody for their luminous deaths.