ALAMEDA, Calif. – A drawing of Jean Francois Millet’s (1814-1875) most famous image generated unexpected levels of bidding in California. The charcoal-on-paper study of The Sower was cataloged as ‘after Millet’ in Michaan’s July 14 gallery auction, but rose from a $300-$500 estimate to bring $52,275. Absentee and Internet live bidding was facilitated through LiveAuctioneers.
The dramatic, full-scale image of a peasant sowing winter wheat was the first major painting Millet made in Barbizon. Now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when first hung at the Paris Salon in 1850 it was deemed shocking in its heroic treatment of the rural poor. Repeated several times, it is known in three finished oils (the latest, dating to 1870, is in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) but also via a lithograph and a number of drawings, including one in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Those who viewed online images of this 9¼ by 7in charcoal-on-paper drawing will have noted not just a number of signatures but also a Vente Millet stamp of the kind applied to the large cache of drawings sold as part of the artist’s estate at the Hotel Drouot in Paris in May 1876. It was this, and the confidence and economy of the sketching, that convinced more than one bidder this was an autograph work.
Millet was a prolific sketcher and many of his drawings survive. They come for sale with some frequency with most studies – typically focused on the unremarkable lives of the French rural population – changing hands in the $2,000-$10,000 range. However, a study for arguably the artist’s most familiar work would doubtless command a significant premium.
American money and innovative French art enjoyed a love affair in the late 19th century. The group of artists who worked in the village of Barbizon in the Fontainebleau Forest from the 1830s were avidly collected in the years after the Civil War. Famously, Millet’s 1859 oil of potato pickers, The Angelus (1859), was sold in in 1890 for $150,000 – the highest price at the time for a modern painting.
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