Jean Francois Millet became a champion of the poor, disadvantaged peasant class by portraying farm workers performing everyday tasks. While he established himself as a proponent of realism — a movement that was in many ways the opposite of grand romanticism of the first half of the 19th century — he nevertheless romanticized his models, employing subtle and not so subtle compositional and narrative techniques. In Feeding the Young (the painting hangs in Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France), the theme is presented in a trademark sentimental envelope.
We discussed Millet tendency to sentimentalize his subjects in the Angelus and in the Shepherdess with Her Flock: this scene, showing a mother feeding three small children, naturally meets several melodrama requirements, and probably beats the other two paintings in that department. The woman, leaning to reach the little’ girl’s mouth with a spoon, is echoed by the rooster in the distance, evoking an analogy to a protective mother hen. Her eagerness — the stool’s legs lift in the air — is matched by the hungry chick, who extends her throat in a display of unaffected trust. The judgment whether the entire image is mawkish, or just sweet, should probably remain at the viewers’ discretion.
An animal flanking the protagonist to hint at character traits is a rhetorical instrument used elsewhere by the artist. In the Shepherdess, a dog appears not far from the young model, implying faithfulness, the quintessential canine quality; dogs are known to symbolize loyalty in visual arts, as Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait demonstrates (the shaggy miniature griffon suggests marital fidelity). Since the Shepherdess was busy praying, we can assume that it is her faith to God that Millet meant to imply. Of course, on a literal level, the dog simply helps to shepherd and control the sheep.
The way the three girls are arranged brings to mind another Millet’s work, the renowned “The Gleaners,” where three women bend down to collect seeds remaining after harvesting. The narrative emerging from comparing the two images — three little girls having dinner grow to become three women looking for food — suggests a rather gloomy cycle for the life of an ordinary peasant. These folks literally live from hand to mouth: generation after generation, apparently without the possibility of betterment.