Jean François Millet (1814-1875) [pronounced: Mee-lay] was born into a peasant family near Cherbourg, in Normandy, France. His artistic talent was soon recognized, and after some training with local artists, the city of Cherbourg provided money for him to study in Paris. He spent some time in the studio of Paul Delaroche, and at the École des Beaux-Arts, and began his career as a portrait painter. In 1849, he moved to Barbizon, a small village in the Forest of Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, and began the series of rural scenes for which he became famous. The Sower (1850, Museum of Fine Art, Boston, MA), The Gleaners, and The Angelus (1857 and 1857-9, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) depict local peasants, with a powerful simplicity and dignity.
Gleaners, or the women who scavenge for the stray ears of corn left by the harvesters, had appeared in several of Millet's drawings, but the first oil painting on the theme was one of a set of four representing the seasons. The painting, Summer, The Gleaners (1853, Private Collection) has an identical composition to The British Museum's drawing, shown here. This drawing may have immediately preceded the painting, but more likely was drawn from it, as Millet frequently repeated and recorded his favourite motifs. Millet was an important influence on later artists, including Van Gogh, who made copies of several of Millet's works.