Nov 012007

In The Wood Sawyers Jean-Francois Millet departs from the static melancholy of his open landscape pieces, such as The Angelus and the Shepherdess with Her Flock, and focuses on a loud, inherently agile activity confined to a seemingly enclosed, vaguely defined, almost abstract space.

This is a very dynamic scene: the bodies of the workers are sharply bent and stretched into different directions, creating a swirling rhythm reinforced by alternating placement of the figures in width and depth. Labor itself — the intensive activity of logging — becomes the protagonist. The artist completely smudges the facial features, prompting the viewers to see a group rather than individuals, to see the dance rather than separate dancers.

Every part of the body engages in that dance. The back muscles of the central figure are bulging, the shoulders and arms of the man on the left are fully engaged and the torso of the farthest logger is strained to the maximum. The mass of the tree trunks further emphasizes the energy involved in their cutting; they appear formidable opponents that give in reluctantly to the combined force of muscle and steel.

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The Wood Sawyers, 1848
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Sheer speed and movement take precedence over other thematic concerns. The process itself consumes the artist’s full attention — there’s no time or space to sentimentalize or romanticize — and the overall image presents a casual, seemingly unplanned observation — which, because it obviously has been planned, is all the more enjoyable to observe. By removing the emphasis on deprived existence and hardship, Millet achieves a representation of the peasant class that, while lean on emotional detail, could be his most honest and universal.

Composition becomes its own goal: rather than suggesting a muddled social agenda, it revels in the clear beauty of geometrical juxtaposition. Instead of evoking pity, these wood sawyers emit an air of camaraderie. Their abrupt motions appear to shake off what could transpire as patronizing compassion, the sound and momentum of their movement creating busy, unknowable, complex characters that overcome the sentimental one-dimensionality of Millet’s static protagonists. They control the environment — and that sense of control implies a sense of hope.

It’s interesting that this glimmer of hope emerges only when working men are portrayed — Millet’s women are rarely given a transcending outlet, or some chance for positive aspiration, as The Gleaners eloquently demonstrate. A commentator on socio-economic distress, the artist was equally concerned, it seems, with gender stratification in contemporary French society.

*this article has been edited at a later date

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