The painter Jean Francois Millet was the son of a peasant farmer. He enjoyed portraying the working people of his time to reflect their strength and dignity; unfortunately, the culture of the time applauded the wealthy classes and looked down on those in poverty. The French upper class expressed both fear and revulsion upon seeing people on the fringes of society struggling to survive; the poor were, for the most part, ignored.
The Happy Peasant
French art fans were familiar with the theme of peasant life; artists generally portrayed a happy peasant working hard to support the beloved upper classes out the virtuous motivations of love and loyalty. Millet was starting his art career at the end of the age of romanticism, and he vowed to portray nature accurately. The harsh reality of peasants carrying out their duties in the name of survival was a little grating on the bourgeois psyche; facing the difficulties of life was not a strong point of the upper classes in 1850s France. Seeing those difficulties delineated in strong brush strokes and emotionally charged paintings made Millet's work the subject of controversy.
Millet was raised with Biblical teachings and had a strong religious background. The Bible was a basis for his portrayal of "Harvesters Resting," a painting depicting the story of the peasant Ruth gleaning in the fields to support herself and her mother-in-law. This biblical tale, combined perhaps with his own farm experience, led Francois Millet to return to the theme of harvest time and gleaning repeatedly. While the European upper classes did not object to the Biblical theme, they strongly rejected the realism with which Millet's subjects were portrayed; being forced to look at poverty head-on jarred their sensibilities, and they did not like it.
The Barbizon school was the beginning of Realism in art, and Millet was a devotee of the movement. He depicted strength as well as harshness in his painting of "The Gleaners." Using his art to make a statement about the poverty of the masses was perhaps a necessary political move on Millet's part, but it was not appreciated in the art world. One critic, Paul de Saint Victor, complained that the "ugliness and grossness" of the peasants was "unrelieved" -- clearly an assault on the senses of the wealthy French elite.
Rights of Peasants
Gleaning the fields -- collecting leftover crops after the commercial harvest -- had been a centuries-old tradition, and many felt that it was a right of the poor; landowners permitted gleaning, and some even left the corners of their fields unharvested for those in need. In painting "The Gleaners," Millet portrayed strong and capable peasants exercising their rights. The upper class viewers of this painting may have been insulted, as the history of the storming of the Bastille was still fresh in their minds. The idea of peasants having rights was frightening to the nobility, but is was natural and normal to Millet; he portrayed peasant life as having strength, nobility and beauty, whether out of his life experience, his religious upbringing or his political savvy.
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