The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet

“It is the treating of the commonplace with the feelings of the sublime that gives to art its true power.”

One of the founders of the Barbizon school, Jean-Francois Millet is celebrated for his depictions of peasant life in rural France (specifically in Fontainebleau Forest near the village of Barbizon). The movement sought to return to nature in art and for that reason most of its members focused on depicting the effects of changing seasons and of transient light on the landscapes. In contrast to other Barbizon artists, Millet addressed the theme of the rural working class as one being closest to nature, as opposed to the bourgeoisie and its urban lifestyle.

See Millet’s Haystacks: Autumn on ArtEx.

As a subject for the present painting Millet selected gleaning, an act of scouring the field in search of stacks of crop missed during the first harvesting. The three women in the foreground are seen bending over and raking scarce remains of crop – a monotone and unenviable task. Gleaning was an occupation of the poorest and the most desperate members of rural society.

However, the meaning of the painting is much deeper than a simple depiction of the hardships of the impoverished. Millet goes further and demonstrates social hierarchy within the rural working class through symbolic contrasts and parallels. Take note of the small sheaves in women’s hands as a metaphor for their poverty and social insignificance contrasted to the large abundant stacks in the background, standing for higher-ranking rural workers who gathered them. Millet’s use of light suggests the distance, both physical and symbolic, and emphasizes social exclusion of the gleaners. The sun shines down on the group of workers in light clothes and the house in the background, while the marginalized gleaners are placed in shadow.

Jean-Francois Millet was an important influence on Vincent Van Gough; think about his rural harvest scenes as in Wheat Stack with Reaper. Many of the Impressionists, including Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, early in their careers travelled to Fountainebleau forest where they practiced plein air painting (tradition borrowed from the Barbizon painters) that would become essential for Impressionism.

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