The Gleaners stands out as one of Millet’s most familiar and iconic images: the highlight of his self-assigned mission to represent the minutiae and hardship of contemporary French peasant life. In many ways, it’s a triumph of that particular trend of the bucolic genre, which the artist himself largely plotted.
Gleaning, which remains very much alive today, means picking up the remnants of the recent harvest — often faulty or otherwise rejected produce. The gleaners are usually considered the poorest of the working class, those who do not own land and have to rely on scattered waste for subsistence. The process of collecting is very time consuming, and quite unproductive.
The painter deploys his trademark compositional template (evident in the Angelus and the Shepherdess with Her Flock), with a background filled by a vast plain and sky, and a foreground peopled by the protagonists. Once again, it is their occupation that gives the painting its title. In the distance, the sunset flares up and stirs the clouds, anticipating Monet’s Haystack harmonies.
The group of two haystacks and a cart in the left upper corner echoes the bending figures and suggests a straightforward analogy: both carry and provide food. This mirroring articulates the relationship between the inanimate heaps and the gleaners as symbiotic and inevitable — but it can also transpire as reductionist and demeaning. While the artist clearly aims to underscore the human dignity of his models, the ambiguity of the comparison lingers as a potential socio-economic expose.
Millet curbs the melodramatic effect of the visual simile — it can appear over tidy and too obvious (as it does in Feeding the Young) — by the mobility of the actors. Their movement conveys a slow, excruciating, exhausting rhythm, at once similar and different from the loud repetitive beat of the Wood Sawyers. The continuous flow of motion between the peasants arrests the imagination, evoking interest in the working routine. Rather than squeezing pity and sympathy from the viewer, as occurs, for instance, in the Shepherdess, the image encourages deliberation and appreciation of the theme and its subjects.
*this article has been edited at a later date