MILLET AND THE HAGUE SCHOOL at the Mesdag Collection in The Hague

Jean-François Millet  De hooibergen, pastel, 1867 – 1868. Courtesy of the museum

Jean-François Millet was one of the most influential French artists of the 19th century. This exhibition focuses on Millet’s influence on members of the Hague (Haagse) School. A unique exhibition containing fragile works, like pastels, seldom seen.

The exhibition is located in the former home of Willem and Sientje Mesdags who collected works by Millet. Not just finished paintings, but also studies. For being artists themselves, they were interested in Millet’s creative process.

The Mesdags owned the largest collection of works by Millet in the Netherlands. His works were displayed in their home and museum. Unfortunately, the collection was dispersed on Willem Mesdag’s death.

Why did Millet inspire members of the Haagse School?  Why did the Mesdags collect his paintings, drawings, pastels, prints?

The Mesdags, Jozef Israëls, Anton Mauve, Matthijs Maris and others, admired Millet’s realistic impressions of rural life and his dignified rendering of ordinary people. Like Millet, they often worked “en plein air”. Like him, they also painted homely scenes in a tradition dating from the Dutch Golden Age.

From an early age, Millet was familiar with rural life. He was born the son of a Normandy farmer. Millet developed a taste for literature, while nursing his artistic talents. These talents were spotted and years later, Millet managed to be accepted at the important Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

Millet also admired and studied works by Michelangelo, Poussin, Rembrandt and other important artists. Yet his subject were often marginalized poor labourers. As he himself stated: “Peasant subjects suit my temperament best; … the human side is what touches me most.”

In 1849, Millet moved to Barbizon, which was already becoming an artist-colony. Recognition of his art grew. In 1870, he was elected member of the Paris Salon jury. When Willem Mesdag entered a work for the Salon, he won a prize at this exhibition.

Millet sent a card congratulating Mesdag. Millet being one of Mesdag’s heroes, Mesdag had it framed and prominently displayed in his home. Visitors find this framed card in the exhibition’s first room.

This room provides background information, time-line and contains works by Millet, once owned by the Mesdags. Among these, an unfinished work of a ruined tower. Remember: being artists themselves, the Mesdags were fascinated by artists’ creative processes.

The theme of the next room is  rural landscapes. Here the impact of Millet on members of the Haagse School becomes immediately clear. Works by Anton Mauve, Mathijs Maris, Jozef Israëls are not only inspired by well-known works by Millet. Some seem copies!

Jozef Israëls was even called the “Dutch Millet”. Admiring his The Shepherd’s Prayer (generously loaned by the American Toledo Museum of Art) it is obvious this work was inspired by Millet’s famous Angelus. Or take Roelofs’ Rainbow: English text explains its relation to Millet’s Spring, now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Upstairs, the next room shows interiors and women. Millet’s “genre” paintings are in the Dutch Golden Age tradition, which he admired and studied. Yet his works are not without social criticism.

Again, links between Millet’s art and members of the Haagse School are obvious. Sometimes, it is similar subjects: women busy with the laundry, or caring for children. In other cases it is postures, composition. Millet uses a figure after a work by Michelangelo? A member of the Haagse School uses Millet’s work to create his own version.

In the last room hang large photos of Sientje and Willem Mesdag’s home. Millet’s works displayed in the exhibition can be seen in these photos. Among them Millet’s drawing Women carrying Faggots. It is not in this Millet exhibition.

It will be displayed at a second Millet exhibition which opens early October at the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum. This second exhibition will also show a work by Millet, usually on display in the Mesdag Collection’s own collection. 

In the Hague, visitors will come across a modern replacement. For the duration of the Amsterdam Millet exhibition, a work by modern artist Hellen van Meene is displayed. For as curator and staff pointed out to me: the Mesdags opened their museum as a museum for contemporary art.   Kate  10th September 2019


Millet and The Hague School runs from 13th September until 5th January 2020. As this museum is closed a few days each week, please check its website to help plan your visit.