The Old Wall
(Jean-François Millet)


Lovingly painted, as dense with distinctive, personalized brushwork as it is with forest flora and fauna, The Old Wall alone is enough to establish Jean-François Millet as a major painter of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Although the wheat fields of Chailly or the kitchen gardens of Barbizon may be the landscapes most commonly associated with Millet (as the backgrounds to so many harvesting or family scenes), the Forest of Fontainebleau was every bit as compelling and as dazzling for him as it was for his fellow painter and neighbor Théodore Rousseau. But where Rousseau celebrated the Forest in the character of its most powerful and dramatic trees, Millet found his Forest at knee level in the broken twigs, the tufts of grass and colorful ferns and wildflowers that cloaked the Forest floor. In the cool, leafy background of The Old Wall, a large stag stands tensely, just behind a man-made breach in the boundary that separated the Forest of Fontainebleau from the village of Barbizon and the surrounding plain. Only the glint of a strongly angled afternoon sun catching on an antler and on the white fur of his chest betrays the animal’s presence, as he pauses to sniff the air before advancing into the dangers of the open land before him. In the 1860s, a decrepit stonewall still enclosed much of the Forest of Fontainebleau, identifying the area as once a protected royal hunting ground and keeping deer and other animals within the preserve, away from enticing gardens and grain fields — as well as from poachers — in the several villages that dotted the forest perimeter. Millet often used a gateway in that wall as a background device to identify the site of woodcutting scenes; but in The Old Wall, he made the crumbling bornage the subject of a painting in its own right. Over, around, and deep in the niches of the wall he lavished a veritable encyclopedia of the grasses, ferns, ivies, wildflowers and spindly shrubs that filled the cooler terrains of the complex woodlands and spilled onto the narrow, uncultivated edge of the Chailly plain that abuts the Forest of Fontainebleau. The protected stones at the heart of the wall are still orange and crisp, while the well-weathered outer blocks crumble at the edges, frosted white and pink with lichens. Ferns are browning with the autumn, and in the foreground two frogs gambol amid dandelions and broken branches. A stray tuft of wheaten-grass loaded with grain rises among the fallen stones, providing the sole suggestion of the fields that attract the stag’s attention.

Millet had painted very few finished landscapes before 1862 (when he recorded completing the Old Wall in a letter to his friend Alfred Sensier) and the picture is especially important for its revelation of Millet’s capacity for distinctly quirky mark making. The patchy daubs of ivy, the ragged, jagged twists of fluid paint that resolve into dangling roots or spiny thistles, the gritty, sandy surfaces of brittle stones — all are the naturalistic embodiment of Millet’s enjoyment of the painting experience. Often suppressed in deference to more concentrated figural imagery in his scenes of working peasants, this technical virtuosity had developed primarily in Millet’s drawings. Only in the 1860s, as landscape painting and painterly craftsmanship for its own sake took new precedence in his art, did Millet reveal this aspect of his artistic persona more fully.

Although beautifully described in Sensier’s 1881 biography of the artist, The Old Wall has otherwise gone undiscussed in Millet literature because it was tucked away in private collections in the United States for more than a century and was not exhibited publicly until 1996. Had this very personal portrait of the Forest of Fontainebleau been better known, it would have a forceful reminder that viewers and critics of Millet’s own day appreciated him as a master of landscape painting as well as of peasant subjects.

Alexandra Murphy

20 x 24 1/4 in. (50.8 x 61.6 cm.)
Oil on canvas

PROVENANCE: Offered by the artist to the dealers Arthur Stevens and Ennemond Blanc, Paris, December, 1862; Alfred Sensier, Paris, his sale, Paris, Hôtel Drouot, December 10-18, 1877, no. 57, bought by Templaere; with Samuel P. Avery, New York, his sale, New York, American Art Association, March 20, 1902, no. 66, bought by Meyer H. Lehman, New York, until 1918 and then by descent to Mrs. Harriet Lehman Weil and Mrs. Bertha Lehman Rosenheim, by descent to Mrs. Elsie Rosenheim Weil and Dr. Henry Lehman Weil, by descent to Dr. George L. Weil, Washington, D.C., 1952, and by descent.


LITERATURE: Alfred Sensier, La Vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet, Paris, 1881, p. 232; Étienne Moreau-Nélaton, Millet raconté par lui-même, Paris, 1921, vol. II, p. 118.


EXHIBITIONS: Munich, 1996, Haus der Kunst (Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen), Corot, Courbet und die Maler von Barbizon, no. B112, pp. 283-64.

Historical Period
Realism to Impressionism - 1840-1900
1999-An Eye on Nature II: The Gallic Prospect. French Landscape Painting 1785-1900.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in New York. 195 pages fully illustrated with 37 full colour plates and 65 black and white illustrations (many full page). Forward by Patrick Matthiesen and Guy Stair Sainty. Introduction by Guy Stair Sainty. £35 or $50 inc. p.&p.

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