Born into a well-off family of farmer’s in Normandy, Millet grew up following the timeless cycle of rural life, which would become the major theme of his career as an artist. ‘To tell the truth’, Millet wrote, ‘the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, even if you think me a socialist, that the human side of art is what touches me most’.
Millet was well-educated and studied in Cherbourg and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1837. His first works were portraits done in a dark palette reflecting his love of 17th-century artists such as Rembrandt, but his first commercial success would not be until 1848 when he sold a peasant scene, The Grain Sifter. Around the same time he moved to Barbizon, a small village in Fontainebleau Forest just a short train ride from Paris where artists had come since the 1820s to paint from nature. Here Millet spent years living in poverty with a wife and nine children, devoting himself to painting scenes of peasant life, including this, his most iconic work, The Gleaners.
Millet spent 10 years studying the theme of gleaners – women who scoured the fields at sunset and picked up, one by one, the stalks of wheat missed by the harvesters. Honoré de Balzac wrote that ‘gleaning was permitted only with a certificate of need issued by the mayor, and gleaning was permitted only to the poor in their own community’. Therefore the gleaners were the poorest of the poor. This image focuses on three such women, bent over reaching for sheaves of corn with hands enlarged and rough from years of labour. It was a backbreaking, repetitive task and you can almost feel the backache and fatigue of these women.
Millet used the soft, slanting light of sunset to emphasise the volume of the figures – each figure is a round solid body, almost like a sculpture. The light also draws attention to their strong backs, shoulders and hands and the earth tones of the rough cloth of their dress. The women’s humble solemnity contrasts with a bucolic hazy scene in the distance: golden haystacks, sheaves of wheat, a full cart and busy workers all suggest an abundant harvest. A man on horseback – probably the overseer – directs their work. His presence is a reminder of the social distance between landowner, his overseer and his humblest workers, the gleaners. Without resorting to sentimentality, Millet presents these humble workers with a quiet, austere dignity.
His pictures captured the grim hardship of common agricultural labourers and imbued peasant life with a humanity that greatly influenced later painters, such as Vincent van Gogh. However, the Parisian bourgeoisie, still reeling from the Revolution of 1848, found his work unsettling: Millet’s farm labourers are hardworking and underpaid and were interpreted as a socialist protest about the peasant’s plight. One critic suggested that The Gleaners bore: ‘the thorn of revolution and the guillotine of 1793’. Yet his vision was often more philosophical than political. A religious fatalist, Millet believed that man was condemned to bear his burdens: his labourers are the embodiment of the endless generations of those who have tilled the earth. His vision began to touch a chord in the 1860s and Millet was awarded a medal at the 1867 Universal Exhibition and the Légion d’honneur the following year.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1857 Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller: On Corpus Christi Morning, Vienna, Belvedere
1857 Jules Breton: Blessing of the Wheat in Artois, Arras, Musée des Beaux Arts
1858 William Powell Frith: Derby Day, London, Tate