In 1870-1871, Millet happily returned to his native region where he took refuge with his family to escape the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war. All the memories of his childhood and his youth came back to him as he wandered around the countryside. The little church at Gréville, where he used to go every Sunday with his parents, was one of the emblematic places of his past.
He made several drawings of it, and brought the painting back to Barbizon. Millet was not completely satisfied with the result, though, as he explained to the British painter Henry Wallis in 1873: "There is a specific impression of this scene, one that struck my imagination when I was a child. I haven't yet managed to convey it but I hope to do so one day". Over and above the classical conventions of landscape painting, it was perhaps also this vision from childhood that Millet was trying to recreate when he made the peasant and sheep so minuscule in relation to the actual dimensions of the building.
Exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg from 1875, the painting struck a chord with the young generation of artists, such as Van Gogh. His Church at Auvers-sur-Oise at the Musée d'Orsay owes something to the painting by Millet. Cézanne, for his part, had a photograph of it.
The power of the painting clearly resides in the melancholy evocation of a sort of golden age that modernity tended to erase. The Church at Gréville brings out a mixture of emotions: the lasting quality of a simple monument that has survived through many generations, and the poignant melancholy that seizes us when we are confronted with the ephemeral nature of our own destiny. The setting sun, a great flight of birds and the impressive, soulful perspective, all contribute to this vision of an impossible absolute.