The Gleaners by Jean François Millet

9:42 AM

The Gleaners by Jean François Millet 

A little bit of history

Date: 1857
Located in the Museé D’Orsay, Paris.

Jean Francois Milliet was part of the "Barbizon School", a group of landscape and figure painters who settled near the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau. Paul Johnson calls him "the Raphael of the peasants", since his paintings portray peasant life with great beauty and dignity. The painting, however, was highly criticized at the time for focusing on the poverty of rural France.

A little bit of technique

Honore Daumier, an artist contemporary to Millet and his friend, said that "it is sometimes more effective not to show the face of the suffering". As Paul Johnson notices, "Millet has the peasants in shadow, their tiredness, harsh life and stoicism expressed, rather, in their postures".1

A little bit of enthusiasm

There's a lot of talk right now about how art should question, raise issues and be politically committed. I can't but help thinking about that when I see this painting. Millet was very criticized for portraying simple workers.

So it's like the artist is seeing something nobody else sees. He sees dignity in these people, in their work, in their struggles. He makes them beautiful. The artist has the sensibility to see these things and he shows it to  us. In the process he might seem controversial, but that was not his main intention.

Now, compare this with the portraits contemporary artist Vik Muniz made of garbage dump workers. One of the problems is that Muniz made the portraits with trash.

In the documentary about his project called Wasteland, Muniz really stresses how the garbage workers suffer humiliation and how much they struggle. And then he goes and portrays them with trash. The name of the series is "Pictures of garbage".

That's not restoring anybody's dignity. Quite the opposite, it just reinforces the prejudice that when you look at these people, trash is what you see. 

Many artists go around saying that they sympathize with workers, that they understand their struggles. Millet  managed to put his art where his mouth is.  

What do you think about Millet's painting?

Image via Wikipedia

1  Art: A New History by Paul Johnson p. 582-585

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