Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Millet was commissioned in 1857 to make this painting for a wealthy American collector, Thomas Appleton. He originally titled it Prayer for the Potato Harvest. Appleton failed to come through on the commission, and Millet added the church spire in the background changing the title to The Angelus. The painting sold soon after its public debut in 1865 initiating a bidding war between French and American collectors that drove the price up to 800,000 gold francs, a lot of money then and now. Millet got not one centime of that money. His case caused the French government to create the droit de suite, the law ensuring that artists are paid a fee for the resale of their pictures (no such law exists in the USA; Jasper Johns gets not one penny when his paintings resell for millions).
Peasants prayed in fields for centuries, but no one ever bothered to paint a picture about it. The spectacle was so commonplace that it was hardly worth noticing, let alone recording. But, in 1857, it was noticed and recorded in a famous work of art. What changed?
For a long time now, those who discussed and purchased art (the affluent educated bourgeoisie) had been estranged from that kind of direct unselfconscious religious belief that they saw in Millet's praying peasants. This was a picture made for people largely alienated from formal religious practice, but who felt a keen nostalgia for religious belief.
I wonder sometimes if what the audience saw and what Millet intended were really in agreement. The original title, Prayer for the Potato Harvest, suggests to me something that Millet knew first hand from growing up working the fields of Normandy, the anxious uncertainty of farm life. Potatoes were the food of the very poor, usually tenant farmers. As the Irish experienced so famously (not too long before this painting was made), a bad potato harvest could mean starvation. These prayers may not have been made out of simple piety so much as unsimple desperation.
The political right and left both made use of this picture, and of the legions of pious peasant pictures that it inspired. For the right, it was an image of simple piety and patriotism. Those who worked the sacred soil of France give thanks to the God of the French (the Germans had no monopoly on "blood and soil" patriotism). For the left, these peasants were the virtuous proletariat. Their authentic piety stands in accusing contrast to the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie who exploited them.
This painting and its popular reception bear witness to both the longing for authentic religious experience in the positivist 19th century, and to the inability of traditional religious imagery (and by implication, of religious institutions) to meet that demand. The ultramontane Roman Catholic Church of the 19th century retreated into an ever more fortified defensive position against the tide of modernity. Artistic innovation within the official confines of the church was discouraged, the traditional imagery reasserted, and pious styles from the 17th century, especially from the work of Guido Reni and Carlo Dolci, were actively promoted.
Posted by Counterlight at Wednesday, August 13, 2008