Among the leading French realists of the 19th century, Jean-Franҫois Millet is also the leading member of the so-called “Barbizon school”, a group of artists who chose to live and work in the countryside and particularly around the French village of Barbizon (Tansey and Kleiner, 1996, 965). Born in 1814, he lived until 1878 (Tansey and Kleiner, 1996, 965) and produced a series of important paintings, one of which, The Gleaners, will be examined in this short essay.
The Gleaners, Jean- Franҫois Millet, 1857, oil on canvas
Millet painted The Gleaners in 1857. Its medium is oil on canvas and it measures 33 X 44 inches (Tansey and Kleiner, 1996, 965). Three women are depicted in the foreground, all bending, but each in a slightly different position than the other. They are dressed with clothes that appear to be working clothes and demonstrate that they belong to the lower classes of society. Behind them, there is a flat background consisted of a rural and agricultural environment of haystacks, trees, other workers and cottages under a pale blue sky (“The Gleaners”). The way the light is treated suggests that the scene is taking place in late afternoon and the light of the setting sun illuminates the forms and colors of the three women (“The Gleaners”).
Unlike most contemporary artists Millet did not depict an historical scene. Instead, he focused on the reality of his times and particularly on the reality of rural France which he saw daily. The working classes come in the foreground and their lives and work become appropriate subjects for a painting. The women are depicted in the three successive phases of their tiring work: picking the remaining ears of corn from harvest (“The Gleaners”). The artist treated them with respect and their presence shows dignity even if their work is hard, not intellectual and even painful (Tansey and Kleiner, 1996, 965). The painting is therefore both a realistic representation of a scene from rural life and at the same as Tansey and Kleiner suggest (1996, 965) “a political manifesto” through the “glorification of the poor”.
It is safe therefore to conclude that The Gleaners is not only a masterly executed painting, but also an attempt to place reality, as experienced by the 19th century French rural poor, at the center of the art world.
Tansey, R. G. and Kleiner, F.S. (1996) Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
“The Gleaners”. (2006). Musee d’Orsay, Paris. Retrieved from: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/index.php?id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1[showUid]=341