Millet mentioned this painting in a letter of August 1872 to his friend and biographer, Alfred Sensier: "I've groaned more than I've worked, since I've done hardly anything but a sketch. You know the subject, a cowherd sounding his horn to collect his cattle at the end of the day." Millet had treated this subject in a charcoal drawing of 1857–58 and a pastel of 1866.
Millet mentioned this painting in a letter of August 6, 1872 to his friend and biographer Alfred Sensier: "I've groaned more than I've worked, since I've done hardly anything but a sketch. You know the subject, a cowherd sounding his horn to collect his cattle at the end of the day." It is possible that Sensier knew this subject through a pastel of the same composition (ca. 1866; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington) or else an earlier charcoal drawing with some variations (ca. 1857–58; present location unknown). The theme was indeed well known, not least through the example of Descent of the Cattle in the Jura (Mesdag Museum, The Hague), the breakthrough painting of 1834–35 by Millet and Sensier’s late friend Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867). Yet in its bold sense of design and through its strongly silhouetted forms, the treatment of the subject here is entirely Millet’s own. Work on Calling the Cows Home does not seem to have progressed beyond its state at the time Millet wrote to Sensier. The Canadian-American painter Wyatt Eaton (1849–1896) recalled seeing the painting during a visit to Millet's studio in 1873, describing it as thinly painted over an ink outline and adding that "this was undoubtedly the work of a single day, or of a few hours, after the picture had been drawn in outline." The canvas was initially covered entirely with the orange-gold tone retained for the sky, which shows through the loosely blocked-in forms below. There, the drawn outlines and occasional hatching are also visible on the surface, while the darker grays and browns lack complementary highlights and finishing touches. Millet must have been satisfied with the equilibrium he achieved in this self-described "sketch," however, as he signed it. The painting is not described as a sketch (esquisse) or study (étude) in the catalogue of his estate sale. [Asher Ethan Miller 2015]
Inscription: Signed (lower left): J·F·Millet·
the artist, Paris (until d. 1875; his estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, May 10–11, 1875, no. 42, as "Vacher rappelant ses Vaches"); Sidney Dillon, New York (in 1888); Mrs. Arthur Whitney, Mendham, N.J. (until 1950)
Wichita Art Museum. "Three Centuries of French Painting," May 9–23, 1954, no. 13 (as "Calling Home the Cows").
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "Paintings of the Barbizon School," January 6–29, 1962, no. 39 (as "Calling Home the Cows").
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Barbizon: French Landscapes of the Nineteenth Century," February 4–May 10, 1992, no catalogue.
Jean-François Millet. Letter to Alfred Sensier. August 6, 1872 [published in Ref. Sensier 1881, p. 349], describes this picture as a sketch he is working on of a herdsman blowing his horn to collect his cattle at the end of the day.
Alfred Sensier. La Vie et l'oeuvre de J.-F. Millet. Paris, 1881, p. 349, identifies this picture as the one described by Millet in his letter [Ref. Millet 1872].
Clarence Cook. Art and Artists of Our Time. New York, 1888, vol. 1, pp. 248–49, as in the collection of Sidney Dillon, New York; calls it "one of Millet's most poetic pictures".
Wyatt Eaton. "Recollections of Jean François Millet: With Some Account of His Drawings for His Children and Grandchildren." Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 38 (May 1889), p. 92 [reprinted in John C. Van Dyke, "Modern French Masters," 1896, p. 183], recalls seeing this picture, called "The Cowherd," during a visit to Millet's studio in 1873; describes it as thinly painted over an ink outline, adding that "this was undoubtedly the work of a single day, or of a few hours, after the picture had been drawn in outline".
Étienne Moreau-Nélaton. Millet raconté par lui-même. Paris, 1921, vol. 3, p. 86, reproduces the pastel version of this composition (formerly collection Émile Gavet, now Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington).
Robert L. Herbert. Letter to Mrs. Leonard Harris. January 19, 1962, dates the Corcoran Gallery pastel 1866 and mentions a drawing of the same composition (about 1857–58; formerly Knoedler's).
Charles Sterling and Margaretta M. Salinger. French Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 2, XIX Century. New York, 1966, pp. 90–91, ill., as "Calling the Cows Home".