Haystacks Autumn (1874) by Jean Francois Millet

Why is Haystacks Autumn an important painting?

  • The cycle of man’s connection with nature
  • Green grass, haystacks and sheep backs
  • Farmer as wizard of all he surveys

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When we enter the scene in Millet’s Haystacks Autumn painting, it looks and feels like an imminent storm. The clouds work as emotional tension; surrounding the ease of connected nature, animal, and man. Jean Francois Millet gives each of these factors equal value on the canvas. The three looming stacks own the center with their round, voluminous, forms. Millet balances the heft of this harvest with grazing sheep below and storm clouds above.

The farmer in the middle holds a walking stick and wears a cloak like a wizard of lore. It works for this moment because this farmer stands before his harvest after all the work has finished. Through his will and direction, he transformed all those rooted plants into giant piles of pure energy… like a magician. Also, he finished before the rains came. That’s the emotional tenor of Haystacks Autumn: achievement swirled with promise all within the natural context of everyday life on earth. Farm work represents the daily toil of human life and the harvest shows us the wonder of its fruition.

These haystacks are more than mere food and fuel, though. When Millet painted this, he did it as part of a series about the seasons. Thus, the trio of bulbous haystacks work as symbols for the other three seasons leading up to the harvest. We can also see them as birth, life, and death.

Farm work sets a tangible example for how life flows through continuous cycles. The job is to harness the natural strengths of each phase as a source of nourishment and care. The sheep in Haystacks Autumn, for instance, provide milk, cheese, and sweaters on a perpetual clock; while also trimming the grass for lunch.


Haystacks Autumn by Jean Francois Millet

Jean Francois Millet respects this deep connection between the farmer and nature. There’s a visual link between the landscape, animals, and figure that seems to swell into the gloomy clouds. They all work in sync. Today, the farmer poses proud by grand stacks and surveys his land with the hard day’s work behind him. Before him are his gleaners, the sheep. This points to another aspect of the harvest cycle.

Gleaning has always served as a common form of food recovery post-harvest. In fact, many farmers left the edges of their fields unharvested to aid the less fortunate with a source of nourishment. These gleaners are mentioned in the Torah and Bible and were even granted legal rights in Europe and the United States. Some of these laws still exist, including the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996. Gleaning points to a natural connection between those who provide and and those who are in need.

Whenever we produce food, such as in a harvest, there’s invariably leftovers. Things get dropped, forgotten, and left behind. The sheep in Haystacks Autumn collect the leavings from the harvested grain for nourishment under the watchful eye of the farmer. They’re his gleaners as well as his providers. This represents an ongoing cycle and yet another symbol of his success. After all, leftover grain is best removed to make room for the next planting anyway. His sheep need nutrients so their bodies can make food and clothing for him and his family.

It all works in concert and illustrates a profound connection between man and nature on every level. Millet shows us that when we provide for others, we also receive gifts in return. That may mean only another season or even just another day working the farm. It’s a beautiful relationship either way.

The grass, haystacks, and sheep seem to blend together under Millet’s brushstrokes. He highlights them in similar shades of green. The painter also points out how they feed each other and even parallels their shape with rounded bodies bent to the fading sunlight. It’s peaceful here before the rain comes. Whenever I see this painting I can smell that fresh hay and feel the mist collecting in the air. Haystacks Autumn gives me a welcome reminder to breathe in deep and let it out with a grateful sigh.


Haystacks Autumn – FAQs

Why is Jean Francois Millet an important painter?

Gleaners-Jean-François-Millet

French painter Jean Francois Millet was a founder of the Barbizon school in the french countryside. He was famous for the purity of his landscapes and especially loved to paint harvesters and gleaners. In fact, he focused on gleaning as his primary subject matter for seven years.

One of his most iconic paintings was The Gleaners from that period. It portrays peasants collecting the remains from a field after harvest. At the time this masterpiece was met with hostile disregard. But it’s now appreciated for profound beauty and realism. Millet loved to paint peasants. He was one of the first European fine artists to insist that the poor were as profound and significant a subject as any other.

What did Jean Francois Millet inspire even after death?

Millet was a great source of inspiration to some of the best painters in history as well as writers. For instance, Vincent Van Gogh, George Seurat, and Dali referenced his work and found Millet intriguing.

Dali even wrote a lengthy analysis of a Jean Francois Millet painting. He insisted that the popular take on the Millet work The Angelus was nothing more than myth and that he knew better what the master painter meant.

Mark Twain also wrote a play with Jean Francois Millet as the protagonist. It was mostly a fictional story about a great artist’s potential for fame and fortune. Twain highlighted the irony of how the promise for artistic success can blow up after the artist’s death. He wrote the play, Is He Dead? in 1898 but it became popular long after and was even produced on Broadway in 2007.


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Stokes, Simon. Art and Copyright. Hart Publishing, 2001. 

Pollock, Griselda. Millet. London: Oresko, 1977.

Lepoittevin, Lucien. Jean François Millet : Images et symboles, Éditions Isoète Cherbourg 1990.

Champa, Kermit S. The Rise of Landscape Painting in France: Corot to Monet. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991.

Read more about gleaning: Carpenter, Eugene E. (2000). Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained. B&H Publishing Group. 

Brantley, Ben (December 10, 2007). “It’s Not Life on the Mississippi, Jean-François Honey“. The New York Times.