The back-breaking work of impoverished peasants was not an artistic subject that appealed to the refined sensibilities of the French urban middle and upper classes of the mid-nineteenth century. Despite the fact that the peasantry literally fed the comfortable city-dwellers, there was a widespread sense of sneering disdain driven by social repulsion.
Jean-Francois Millet – born a peasant
The French abstract values of liberty, equality and fraternity were all well and good – but really, the millions of peasants toiling away in the countryside were not like ‘us.’ And their brutish lives were surely unworthy of any serious artistic attention.
But there was a French artist who saw life in quite a different light from the urban art snobs. His name was Jean-Francois Millet – and he had emerged from a peasant family in Normandy.
Young Millet was immersed in both the beauties and hard challenges of rural and family farming life in the 1820s. His emerging talent as a nature artist was recognised and he was sent to fashionable city art schools. But Millet declared, ‘I will never have the art of Parisian drawing rooms forced upon me. A peasant I was born, a peasant I will die.’
The Gleaners by Millet
The supreme expression of Millet’s declaration was his 1857 painting, ‘The Gleaners’ or ‘Les Glaneuses.’ This depicted three French peasant women exercising their ancient right to ‘glean’ leftover grain and stalks from recently harvested fields. The extraordinary quality of the painting earned it a place in the annual showcase of French art, the Paris Salon. Nevertheless, the painting was condemned by prissy critics and respectable Parisian society, who were offended by such an honest and shocking artistic depiction of rural poverty.
Outcast from polite society – and from a source of income – Millet nevertheless held firm in revealing the truth as he had experienced it. As he explained, ‘I have never seen anything but fields since I was born. I try to say as best I can what I saw and felt.’
Despite Millet being a committed Catholic, it did not help that ‘The Gleaners’ looked suspiciously like a painting that could have easily come from Protestant northern Europe. That is to say, instead of celebrating scenes from sophisticated Parisian life, tame gardens, classical mythology or the Bible, Millet apparently saw godliness in common people going about their arduous and distinctly unglamorous work in the hardscrabble countryside. Incomprehensible!
In the ‘The Gleaners’, the skin of all three women is deeply tanned, reflecting their exposure to the summer and autumn sun. Tanned skin was regarded as a notorious social marker of the peasantry and was disgusting to lily white city sophisticates. The women’s work clothing (the antithesis of city fashion) is depicted as coarse and faded. We can trust this to be true to life because Millet actually kept scraps of peasant clothing to hand as a visual reference.
And there is no false sentimentality about the ‘joys’ of rural life in ‘The Gleaners.’ These ‘old’ and worn-out women are no longer capable of participating in the harvest, which is in progress in the background of the painting. What awaits these gleaning women – and we might suspect sooner rather than later – is creeping incapacity and death.
But above all, ‘The Gleaners’ is a moving tribute to the working lives of French peasant women – an empathetic depiction of dignity and resilience and of bodies bent but not (yet) broken.
Despite the earlier rejection of his art by polite society, Millet’s sublime talent eventually prevailed and in 1865 he was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour.
‘The Gleaners’ can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…