French artist Jean-François Millet was born on October 4, 1814. The son of peasants, Millet was educated by his village priests. As a young man, he left home for Cherbourg, on the tip of Lower Normandy, to train as a portrait painter. A stipend allowed the talented man to move to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Millet married when returned to Cherbourg as a portrait painter, but the couple soon left for Paris to advance his career. All did not progress smoothly, however; Millet had a painting rejected by the Salon and his wife died of tuberculosis. Millet returned to Cherbourg, and then moved to Le Havre, where he met his second wife, with whom he had nine children. The family moved back to Paris. There, he and several friends formed the Barbizon school, known for their idealized paintings of peasants at work. His trilogy of great paintings included The Sower, The Gleaners, and The Angelus.
This last was sold for a fortune shortly after the artist’s death on January 20, 1875 – but since it had changed hands several times, his family received no part of the proceeds although they lived in abject poverty. The injustice of this situation led to the droit de suite (drwa duh sweet), or “the right of following”, which gave artists or their families some share of the proceeds upon the resale of a work. His legacy was not just financial, however, as Millet has been cited as an important influence on van Gogh, Monet, and Seurat.
The Angelus also fascinated Salvador Dali who believed that the couple was not engaged in their devotions, but rather mourning the death of a child. At his insistence, the painting was x-rayed, and sure enough, a shape that may have once been a coffin had been painted over. What Millet had painted and why he eventually painted over it will remain a mystery, however.