'Classical Landscape with a City by a River'

Jean-Francois (called Francisque) Millet (Antwerp, Belgium 1643 - 1679 Paris, France)

In the foreground, a woman mourning on tomb, and a woman on the right with a bucket. The cityscape with a river and circular tower in the mountains serves as a background.

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 83.2 x 103.2cm (unframed), 98 x 117.5cm (framed)
Date: 1660-65
Accession No: WAG10854

Born in Antwerp the son of French immigrants from Dijon, Millet studied first with the Flemish artist Laureys Franck (flourished 1622-62), with whom he went to Paris in 1659 and whose daughter, Anne Perrette, he married in 1662. Apart from visits to Flanders, Holland and England he remained in Paris for the rest of a brief career supposedly cut short by poisoning.1| Few of his works are documented and he never seems to have signed or dated his works. Those paintings that are documented as having been commissioned from him, such as the four in the Queen’s 'Cabinet' in the Tuilleries Palace between 1666-68, have disappeared. His surviving and identified paintings number over 50 and have often been confused with those of his son Jean (1666-1723) and grandson Joseph (c.1688-1777) who were both also nicknamed Francisque.2| Millet was acknowledged as one of the subtlest interpreters of the classical landscapes of the Rome-based French painter Nicolas Poussin (1593/4-1665). As in the Walker’s painting Millet emulated Poussin’s style, subject-matter and red-ground technique, still visible on the edge of the canvas in the upper right corner.

The core of Millet’s work has been identified from the 28 engravings by ‘Théodore’, possibly Millet’s pupil, who copied his paintings. But the composition of the Walker’s painting is not reproduced in any of the ‘Théodore’ prints.3| However, the classical tomb (left foreground), with a shrouded figure of a mourning woman seated beside an urn, seems to appear (right background) in a painting by Millet in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, 'Landscape with Christ and his Disciples', in which Christ is shown talking to a fellow traveller on the road.4|'The Hermitage landscape is the only other identified painting by Millet showing this distinctive tomb. Neither does any other painting or engraving show a woman carrying a bucket or pail in her hand. At her feet is a young man resting wearily at the side of the track, sitting on his traveller’s pack with his stick lying beside him on the ground. This figure also does not appear in any other known Millet painting, drawing or print after his work.

The prominently sited tomb, which has caught the attention of the female passer by, casts a sombre, slightly disquieting mood, over what might otherwise be considered a rural scene of daily human activity on the edge of an ancient Roman town - washerwomen scrubbing clothes on the river’s edge, a boatman sailing upstream, a traveller resting beside a path. Unlike the landscape in the Hermitage painting there is probably no specific biblical or classical story being depicted.  Instead the painting provides an evocation of the transient nature of life, death intrudes into daily-life, if only fleetingly, as the standing woman, bending with the weight of her pail, gazes momentarily transfixed by the tomb, her figure sunlit in the centre of the composition immediately attracts the viewer’s attention.

The melancholy scene is given a classical flavour by the buildings that form a riverside backdrop. The two circular towers are reminiscent of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo (built in the 1st Century A.D. for Emperor Hadrian) and the tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Appian Way. The smaller tower also appears in 'La Baie', a small circular panel, which Millet painted and ‘Théodore’ engraved.5| But the most pronounced influence on the Walker’s 'Classical Landscape' (and on many other scenes by Millet) was Nicolas Poussin by whose works he was greatly inspired. Millet had direct knowledge of Poussin’s paintings from examples in Parisian collections including that of the banker Everard Jabach, one of Millet’s major patrons, whose inventory mentions several copies by Millet of Poussin’s works.6| Millet almost certainly learnt much from these copies. The impact of Poussin’s work is evident in the Walker’s painting. The way in which its classical and rustic buildings are massed against rocky outcrops and silhouetted against a cloud-filled bright blue sky, is similar to the background in the Walker’s Poussin 'Landscape with Phocion’s Widow Gathering his Ashes|', which had been painted for a French silk manufacturer in 1648. Millet provides a further air of antiquity and order in the Walker’s 'Classical Landscape' by carefully balancing the natural and architectural elements, so that an arch of bending tree-trunks frames the centrally placed buildings and female figure.

Though Millet’s works are not dated and a chronology for his paintings has yet to be established, as a rough rule of thumb, those that are classically balanced and Poussinesque in style, such as the Walker’s picture, are most likely to have been painted in Millet’s early maturity sometime before the mid 1660s. After that period Millet seems to have sought inspiration from the less ordered, wilder and more bosky landscapes of Poussin’s brother-in-law, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75) ['Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe|', Walker Art Gallery], also known as Gaspar Poussin, whose paintings were to be found in Parisian collections by the late 1660s.7| Dughet’s influence became so great that in the eighteenth century several of Millet’s paintings had been mistakenly reattributed to Dughet, including the Walker’s own picture which continued to be given to Dughet into the early twentieth century.

Later history

During his lifetime Millet’s works were popular with collectors at the French court and amongst his fellow artists, including the powerful taste-former Charles Le Brun ['Atalanta and Meleager|', Walker Art Gallery ] who owned three paintings by Millet on his death in 1690. By the middle of the eighteenth-century Millet’s work may well have influenced British landscape artists such as Richard Wilson (1714-1782) ['Snowdon from Llyn Nantle|', Walker Art Gallery]. English patrons were great admirers of painted and managed landscapes in the eighteenth century and there was a close link between the ideal classical landscape as painted by artists such as Millet and Poussin and as planted in the parklands of aristocratic country houses. It is not surprising, therefore, to find many works by Millet being sold in England by the early nineteenth century, more than eighty appearing on the market between 1801 and 1810. 8| By 1799 the Walker’s painting was already in an English country-house collection, that of Arthur Chichester, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-1799), at Fisherwick Hall, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Chichester had been created Marquess in 1791and Baron Fisherwick the previous year and had immediately set about rebuilding the Hall and replacing it with 'a magnificent edifice'.9| He was also an avid collector, though perhaps more for the social cachet that a collection added than out of enthusiasm, as in 1788 he was described as 'a serious, well disposed nobleman' who 'has expended £20,000 on books not yet opened, and £10,000 on shells not yet unpacked'.10|

Provenance

Arthur Chichester, 1st Marquess of Donegall (1739-1799), Fisherwick Hall, nr. Lichfield, Staffordshire;11|‘Mrs. Mott’ from whom bought as a ‘G. Poussin’ by H.G. Eckford, Christie’s 16 July 1870 lot 10512| Earle Drax from whose sale Christie’s 19 February 1910 lot 104 bought by Daniel Sternberg as ‘G Poussin’;13| descended from Daniel Sternberg (1860-1927), a stockbroker, to his daughter Marguerite Frederika Sternberg (d.1991), who bequeathed it to the Art Fund; presented by The Art Fund| to the Walker Art Gallery 1992.

Literature

  • 'NACF Annual Review for the year ended 31st December 1992', 1993, no.3867, pp. 169-170.

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Footnotes

  1. Thierry Bajou entry on Francisque Millet in 'The Grove Dictionary of Art', 1996, vol. 21, pp.609-610. See also Humphrey Wine, 'The Seventeenth Century French Paintings' National Gallery, London, 2001 p.255 NG5593.
  2. Bernard Biard, 'Dossier de l’Art: Francisque Millet le Paysage en France de 1650 a 1700', Dijon, 2003, no.93, pp.82-89, includes a summary catalogue of Millet’s paintings, which, however, does not include WAG 10854.
  3. Biard, 'Dossier', as above, pp. 78-80. For another 'Classical Landscape' not copied by ‘Théodore’ see Musée des Beaux Arts Marseilles R.F.1964-13 in 'Century of Splendour Seventeenth-century French Painting in French Public Collections', Montreal Museum of Fine Arts & Montpellier, 1993, p.375 cat.no.105.
  4. Biard, 'Dossier', p.82, no.6. Oil on canvas and at 99 x 102cm taller than WAG 10854.
  5. For 'La Baie', private collection, see Biard, 'Dossier' cat.35 p.86.
  6. Bajou 'Grove Dictionary of Art', as above, pp.609-610. See also Biard pp.73-74 quoting A Schnapper, 'Curieux du Grand Siècle, collections et collectionneurs dans la France du XVIIe siècle', Paris, 1994, pp.267-82.
  7. Biard, pp. 26-28.
  8. Biard, pp. 76-77.
  9. Ed. MW Greeenslade, 'A History of the County of Stafford', vol.XIV Lichfield, 1990, p.242; Thomas Harwood, 'The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield', 1806, p.566. In 1808 the Hall was sold to RB Howard, Lord of Elford, of Ashtead Park, Surrey who died 1818 having demolished the Hall.
  10. GE C[okayne], 'The Complete Peerage', 1982 repub., Vol. 2, pp.391-2 quoting a letter of  Lord Marchmount 21 June 1788
  11. Old and torn printed label on reverse of frame reads: 28 G Poussin A Classical Landscape, with water-//fall, from Fisherw...all,// (the Marquis of Donegal’s), a picture of high quality, 39 x 31.
  12. Written in ink on the reverse of the top part of the frame: ‘Landscape // by Gaspar Poussin // bought of[?] H.G. Eckford Esq. // July 1870[?]’ and Christie’s stencil 935T. The Motts were a  family of Lichfield lawyers and diocesan registrars, William Mott died 1826 and his son John died 1869, see 'Burke’s Landed Gentry', 1952 p.1835.
  13. Christie’s stencil 820BP.