I came across Jean François Millet some weeks ago when my DailyArt app sent me The Gleaners, his 1897 masterpiece. I was so impressed by this that I dug a little deeper into the Millet catalogue and found Hunting Birds at Night, also known as Bird’s Nesters. Jean François Millet founded the Barbizon School, which was devoted to “accuracy in its depictions of rural peasant life and realism in landscapes (David’s Art of the Day)”. He was known for @soft lighting, scenes of peasant farmers, and devotion to visual and emotional realism (Ibidem)”. Let’s explore this painting further.
This 1874 painting is drawn from scenes from Millet’s childhood. At night, he would go out with members of his household to blind large flocks of pigeons, then club them with big sticks and collect the fallen fowl. This rather barbaric act of violence against poor innocent, but no less irritating, pigeons is depicted quite gracefully.
Many aspects of this painting jump out to me immediately and I’d like to discuss these. Firstly and perhaps chiefly is the use of light here. Light is the central theme of the painting but also of the act depicted in the painting. But look at how dramatic and explosive the lighting is. Observe how beautifully the light dissipates the further you get from its focal point and how well rendered the shadows of the flying fowl are against it. Millet does show us how massive the flock was and how panicked they would be during this barbarous act. David suggests this is done well by rendering the individual birds roughly rather going into infinitesimal detail.
Secondly note how graceless the two people on the floor are. They are desperately snatching at the fallen pigeons before they regain consciousness and perhaps fly away again. I love the immediacy and the hurried strained nature of their poses. I think the urgency the act requires is shown wonderfully.
Overall this painting is an excellent representation of rural life in the late 19th Century. Millet was excellent at this, as can be seen in the Gleaners, above, and will perhaps be explored in further posts. I hope this painting has shed some light in our own unfortunate situation. We should count our blessings that while we are isolated, nobody is waking us with a lamp and bashing us about the head.