Selected Criticism

Millet, Jean-François (1814–1875)
Asselineau, Roger
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman had seen reproductions of some of Millet's paintings in magazines at an early date, but discovered his actual works during a short stay in Boston, when he visited the Millet collection of Quincy Shaw (now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) on 18 April 1881. He has described his experience in Specimen Days: "Two rapt hours . . . I stood long and long before 'the Sower.' . . . I shall never forget the simple evening scene, 'Watering the Cow'" (Whitman 267–268). He considered these paintings "perfect as pictures" and "with that last impalpable ethic purpose from the artist (most likely unconscious to himself) which I am always looking for" (268). He wondered: "Will America ever have such an artist out of her own gestation, body, soul?" (269). The peasants painted by Millet helped him to understand the violence of the French Revolution, caused by the "abject poverty" to which they were condemned (268). He never ceased afterward to admire Millet and discuss him with Horace Traubel and his friends.

"The Leaves are really only Millet in another form," he said to Harned; "they are the Millet that Walt Whitman has succeeded in putting into words" (With Walt Whitman 1:7). Whitman preferred Millet to Thomas Eakins: "We need a Millet in portraiture—a man who sees the spirit but does not make too much of it—one who sees the flesh but does not make a man all flesh. . . . Eakins almost achieves this balance . . . not quite . . . Eakins errs just a little . . . in the direction of the flesh" (With Walt Whitman 1:131). He particularly approved of Wyatt Eaton's article, "Recollections of Jean-François Millet," in Century Magazine, especially the sentence, "One must be able to make use of the trivial for the expression of the sublime" (92), which very aptly described his own art.

"Millet is my painter," Whitman said; "he belongs to me: I have written Walt Whitman all over him" (With Walt Whitman 1:63). No wonder Richard Maurice Bucke found eleven points the painter and the poet had in common. (He drew up the list for the Conservator.) Indeed Whitman again and again emphasized the similarity himself. He thought they shared above all the same implicit transcendentalism: "The thing that first and always interested me in Millet's pictures was the untold something behind all that was depicted—an essence, a suggestion, an indication leading off into the immortal mysteries" (With Walt Whitman 2:407).


Asselineau, Roger. "Whitman et Millet." Quinzaine Littéraire 16 (1975): 18.

Eaton, Wyatt. "Recollections of Jean-François Millet." Century Magazine 38 (1889): 90–104.

Merwin, Henry Childs. "Millet and Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 79 (1897): 719–720.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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