The Norman Milkmaid is one of France’s most enduring symbols, both for outsiders and for the region’s people. This figure appears frequently in early nineteenth-century travel literature and popular art.
It also is an iconic symbol of Normandy’s rich faience pottery tradition, influenced by both French and European ceramic traditions. It was especially common in the city of Rouen, where faience is still produced today.
In contrast to the wares produced at Nevers, however, Rouen faience is a more traditional style of glazed earthenware made in the tin-glaze method. While this process originated in Italy, it was eventually developed and refined by the French.
This type of jug can be found on the walls of some churches, taverns, and other buildings in France. The design of these jugs may reflect the local landscape or the style of the church.
They are often depicted in paintings of heroic figures (fig. 1).
The jug also represents a significant part of the culture of the region, and is used in many local dishes. The image of a milkmaid carrying a copper milk jug is an important motif in Millet’s painting.
This is an interesting example of the way in which Millet’s figurative work was sometimes adapted from illustrations rather than drawn directly from his own memory. This may be in part because he wanted to appeal to urban patrons who would likely recognize the motif of the milkmaid as being a recognizable cliche from French travel illustration. It is also possible that he deliberately sought out this particular cliche for its ethnographical resonance.