Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Specter of Labor Takes the Stage; Jean-Francois Millet

The Man With The Hoe

The Gleaners, 1857

Jean Francois Millet debuted at the Salon of 1848 held in March of that year, less than a month after the revolution which forced the abdication of King Louis Phillipe of France, and which started the short-lived Second Republic. The hopes for a "Social Democracy" came undone when the new conservative government reversed gains for the working class provoking the "June Days," three days of civil war in the streets of Paris between the National Guard and the Parisian poor. After the army was called in to put down the rebellion, 1500 lay dead in the streets, and thousands more were rounded up and sent to exile in Algeria.

The appearance of Millet's exhausted and toiling peasants looming upon the walls of public exhibitions in the France of Louis Napoleon frightened a lot of people. Though Millet never made any public declaration of his political sympathies, he was always suspected by the authorities and by the establishment. On the one hand, this suspicion enhanced his fame, on the other, it harmed his sales. Millet lived in poverty for years even while widely famous.
The peasant farmers in Millet's best paintings are toilers whose labors sustain life for everyone else. For centuries, peasants were regarded by their social superiors as but a step above the cattle that they tended, the butt of crude jokes at their expense. When peasants appeared at all in art, it was usually in Arcadian fantasies of natural harmony and fulfilled desire. The only exception was Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the 16th century who made the peasants and their toils into a larger metaphor for the human condition. Millet was himself the son of Norman peasants, though prosperous ones who could afford to have him educated. He did indeed have the experience of plowing fields and shearing sheep.
Millet neither mythologizes nor sentimentalizes farm labor. He shows it as exhausting back-breaking work, a constant struggle to make the soil productive. Farm life is as uncertain as it is hard. He shows people bent and made prematurely old by years of such labor. What frightened people about Millet's farm laborers was not their candid appearance, but their grandeur. Millet gave his peasant laborers the monumentality of the tradition of French public classicism. His Gleaners shows the poorest of the poor, people picking the leavings, gleaning, the fields after the harvest is over. He gives his three women bent over the mown field picking up stray ears of wheat the largeness of form, the concentrated rhythm and counter-rhythm of a great history painting by Poussin. The a a b rhythm is inverted and echoed by the b b a of the haystacks and haywagon in the background. Their bent over shapes echo the forms of the haystacks behind them.  Though they are shown way out beyond the edge of the busy harvest activity in the background, they have a solidity and looming presence that dominates the
whole picture.  Millet's contemporaries probably saw these poorest of poor women as threatening and intimidating.
That same grandeur, and largeness of form is behind the power of The Man With The Hoe, a picture that still moves and disturbs us even without the famous Edwin Markham poem it inspired. The horizon line is kept low as this haggard figure with the exhausted face stands alone etched against the sky.  Millet gives the Man with the Hoe a dominating presence over the surrounding landscape that seems to smoke with the labor spent upon it.  He is a figure that still frightens and intimidates. 
Millet's monumental paintings of those whose poorly requited and brutal toil made life convenient for everyone else rendered him suspect in the eyes of those who depended on that labor and feared its latent power. Millet's paintings haunted them with reminders of the June Days, and with the specter of potentially worse upheavals should these laborers ever demand freedom and dignity as a right and not as anyone's gift.

1 comment:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Counterlight, you write beautifully about art. You should write a book. Your students are most fortunate to have you as a teacher. I know that most of them don't appreciate what you give them, but I hope that a few of them do.