Nocturnal Scene in a Forest
Black chalk on ribbed hand-made paper
Inv. No. SG 3391
30.5 × 24.5 cm
The French artist Jean-François Millet executed this »night piece« at Barbizon in the latter half of the 1850s. In 1849 he and his family had moved from Paris to that small village on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, and apart from a very few journeys he remained there until his death. As a member of the artists’ colony at Barbizon he devoted himself to the countryside of the region and to the depictions of peasant life that were soon to spread his fame as far as the East Coast of America.
As the viewer tries to penetrate this Nocturnal Scene in a Forest, it seems as if his eyes must first adjust gradually to the dark. A moon hangs low in the sky. Shining through the densely growing slender trunks of tall, bare trees, its pale light reveals the ghostly forms of a group of three people in a clearing right in the foreground. They are in the process of stripping the clothes from an apparently lifeless figure lying on the ground. In its pose, this figure resembles the victim of a fight in an illustration to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (Fine Arts Museum, Budapest) executed by Millet in 1851. Beyond that, however, the latter drawing sheds no light on the one under discussion here. Mystery continues to surround the nocturnal events taking place in a location whose eerie atmosphere is intensified to the utmost degree by the picture’s dense structure and masterly use of the range of subtle gradations of tone achievable with black chalk.
One explanation of the drawing’s import is to be found in the assumption that it formed part of a project – never realized – to illustrate the Fables of Jean de la Fontaine (1621–1695). Millet had begun work on this project along with Théodore Rousseau, Jules Dupré and Narcisse-Virgile Diaz of the Barbizon group as well as two other artist friends, Antoine-Louis Barye and Honoré Daumier. Either of the two fables assigned to Millet – »La Mort et le Bûcheron« (»Death and the Woodcutter«) and »La Forêt et le Bûcheron« (»The Forest and the Woodcutter«) – could be closely connected with the mysterious scene in the drawing. A later drawing in the Louvre, a preparatory study for a Millet painting showing an encounter between the woodcutter and Death (1858/59, Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen), depicts a murder scene. The scene in that form is not repeated in the painting, which is different in composition, but with regard to the underlying idea the later drawing harks back to the one in the Städel.
Millet executed a number of drawings in black chalk where he lets the whiteness of the hand-made paper show through to form part of the design as light virtually staging the scene. Among those works, the Nocturnal Scene in a Forest is one of the outstanding examples that anticipate the fascinating quality of the later drawings by Georges Seurat.