Idolized and emulated by Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Francois Millet was a realist who mainly portrayed peasant life, inspecting it with a compassionate eye, and rendering his humble models as the heroes of their environment. Therein, of course, lies the problem for Millet’s critics: his scenes may often appear too endearing and idealized, bordering on sentimental.
A careful treatment of line produces rounded angles, pliable contours, and neat figures; the faces of the actors are often concealed, insisting on the notion that they are prototypes rather than individuals, they are “Peasants” rather than just “peasants.” While the artist’s ambition undoubtedly has a strong social, and even political merit, his idealizing approach can seem too precious — sometimes, outright distracting, even annoying. Paul Gauguin was so dismissive of these qualities that, according to Irving Stone’s account in “Lust for Life,” he had had a serious fight with van Gogh over the issue.
While van Gogh’s appreciation for Millet’s style becomes understandable if we consider the Dutch artist’s own passion for social veracity — he lived amongst hard working people and planned to become a village cleric — Gauguin’s remarks, I believe, retain their value, and reveal a degree of sagacity and keenness of observation. Still, regardless of later artists’ criticisms, Jean Francois Millet is considered a recognized classic, and a pioneer in bringing the life of the lower classes to the canvas — and to the attention of Paris. Whether his sentimentality is endearing or annoying is ultimately a matter of taste.
Influence of Hyppolyte Delaroche
Perhaps one of the reasons why it can be difficult to take the authenticity of Millet’s models at face value should be attributed to his training. Millet was a pupil of the academic painter Hippolyte Delaroche, who depicted historical figures and fictionalized versions of famous Greek and Roman artists. His subjects display antique perfection and grace, albeit filtered through the sensibility of Renaissance and Baroque; not as dramatic, they nevertheless impart emotional immediacy and anticipation, the images demonstrating a classicist purity of composition.
The monumentality of Millet’s figures seems to reveal the influence of Delaroche’s grand style. He employs similar antique models, dresses them in peasant attire, and forces them into uncomfortable, contorted postures in mid action; underneath the clothing, hide the same rarified, idealized subjects who seem to ache for grander gestures. This stylistic, as well as thematic, inconsistency explains the reason for Gauguin’s discomfort and ridicule. Ancient Greek sculptors and architects can, indeed, appear ridiculous, if they wear pants and bonnets. The underlying strain subverts the idea of authenticity.
This is a tense composition (the painting hangs in Musee d’Orsay, Paris): the man and the woman stand painfully lonely and deserted against the vast desolate background. Working tools, the pitchfork and the hand-cart, rest closely by, mimicking the gestures of the protagonists. The viewing angle suspends observers slightly above and in front of the events, suggesting a certain level of intimacy — this particular viewpoint recurs in other Millet works.
As the subjects and the objects intersperse across the foreground, they create a tight visual rhythm. The compositional interrelation between the workers and their instruments serves to emphasize their close relationship and interdependence. It may appear that the tools complement the pair, or even partake in the prayer, or, perhaps, “comfort” their owners after a hard day’s work. There’s a touch of the ludicrous to be traced: the way the pitchfork and the cart mirror the frames of the husband and wife, one slender and long, another stocky and short, produces an inadvertent “Pat and Patachon” comic effect.
X-ray analysis revealed that the basket at the low center might have been meant to be a coffin — apparently the coffin of a newborn (or stillborn) baby. This revelation sheds a new light on the scene, lending it a tragic overtone. The subject of the prayer — angel Gabriel, who annunciated to Mary that she will give birth to Christ — serves to support this interpretation, first suggested by Salvador Dali. The renowned surrealist studied Millet’s masterpiece, and eventually painted his own version, titled “The Architectonic Angelus.”
*this article has been edited at a later date