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Arty Fact

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At the 1857 Paris salon, Jean Francois Millet finally bit the hand that fed him.

The art scene in France was fairly rigid at the time. Millet had studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts before he left for Barbizon. Realism was attempting to pave its way into the circuit, but the lobby for academy-certified painting styles was invincible, and academy did not want to look at pictures of “rural beggars," or gleaners. They didn’t deserve mention, and Millet was a traitor for favoring them. Fancy French society really didn’t have the stomach for this imagery.

As a young boy, Millet had spent a lot of time at his family farm. He assisted in the sowing, winnowing, harvesting, you name it. Millet’s paintings are about a life he once had. This painting is about the lives of those people he never noticed. While he gathered the bounteous harvest in the background, the gleaners toiled for microscopic grain in an empty field.

It was an ancient tradition, gleaning. Landlords would allow those less fortunate to rummage in the fields after the bulk of the crop had been harvested. Both the gleaners and the farmers have their backs arched to the ground. The physical labor involved could balance a see-saw. The farmers just got a better pay-off. 

Millet was absolutely riveted by the tradition. He spent about ten years researching it and watched plenty of men and women embark on this voyage. Not many people spoke about this part of countryside living. But communist thought had recently pervaded the social fabric of France and Millet, among others, started noticing the rift between classes.

The Gleaners were as French as their farming neighbors, yet Paris refused to talk about them. The outrage at the Salon gives us a pretty good idea of what Millet was dealing with. A small band of historians argue that gleaners at the time did not look like that, that they were usually in rags and terribly malnourished. Their theory suggests that Millet may have dressed up his subjects so that the salon would at least look at the painting. He was attempting to soften the blow for them. Clearly, that didn’t go down very well.

Millet found it hard to make the sale as a consequence of the harsh criticism. When he did finally sell the painting, he was paid 3000 francs, or about $600. Quite the steal. 

Sources

Sources

  1. “Millet, Jean-Francois The Gleaners.” ArtsHeaven.com. Accessed September 30, 2019. https://www.artsheaven.com/painting/artists/m/jean-francois-millet/the-g....
  2. “Millet Biography, Life & Quotes.” The Art Story. Accessed September 30, 2019. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/millet-jean-francois/life-and-legacy/.
  3. “Art History Blogger.” Art History Blogger (blog). Blogspot, September 21, 2011. http://arthistoryblogger.blogspot.com/2011/09/jean-francois-millets-glea....
  4. “The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-Francois Millet.” The Gleaners, Jean-Francois Millet: Analysis. Accessed September 30, 2019. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/paintings-analysis/gleaners-millet.htm.
  5. Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. Smarthistory. Accessed September 30, 2019. https://smarthistory.org/millet-the-gleaners/.
  6. Fratello, Bradley. "France Embraces Millet: The Intertwined Fates of "The Gleaners" and "The Angelus"." The Art Bulletin 85, no. 4 (2003): 685-701. doi:10.2307/3177365.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Gleaners

The Gleaners (Des glaneuses) is an oil painting by Jean-François Millet completed in 1857.

It depicts three peasant women gleaning a field of stray stalks of wheat after the harvest. The painting is famous for featuring in a sympathetic way what were then the lowest ranks of rural society; this was received poorly by the French upper classes.

History

Millet's The Gleaners was preceded by a vertical painting of the image in 1854 and an etching in 1855. Millet unveiled The Gleaners at the Salon in 1857. It immediately drew negative criticism from the middle and upper classes, who viewed the topic with suspicion: one art critic, speaking for other Parisians, perceived in it an alarming intimation of "the scaffolds of 1793." Having recently come out of the French Revolution of 1848, these prosperous classes saw the painting as glorifying the lower-class worker. To them, it was a reminder that French society was built upon the labor of the working masses, and landowners linked this working class with the growing movement of Socialism. The depiction of the working class in The Gleaners made the upper classes feel uneasy about their status. The masses of workers greatly outnumbered the members of the upper class. This disparity in numbers meant that if the lower class was to revolt, the upper class would be overturned. With the French Revolution still fresh in the minds of the upper classes, this painting was not perceived well.

Millet's The Gleaners was also not perceived well due to its large size, 33 inches by 44 inches, or 84 by 112 centimetres. This was large for a painting depicting labor. Normally this size of a canvas was reserved for religious or mythological style paintings. Millet's work did not depict anything religiously affiliated, nor was there any reference to any mythological beliefs. The painting illustrated a realistic view of poverty and the working class. One critic commented that "his three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty...their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved." While the act of gleaning was not a new topic—representations of Ruth had existed in art—this new work was a statement on rural poverty and not biblical piety: there is no touch of the biblical sense of community and compassion in the contrasting embodiments of grinding poverty in the foreground and the rich harvest in the sunlit distance beyond. The implicit irony was unsettling. After the Salon, Millet, short on money, sold his piece for 3,000 francs—below his asking price of 4,000—after haggling with an Englishman named Binder who would not budge for his meagre counter-offer; Millet tried to keep the miserable price a secret. While The Gleaners garnered little but notoriety during his life, after his death in 1875, public appreciation of his work steadily broadened. In 1889, the painting, then owned by banker Ferdinand Bischoffsheim, sold for 300,000 francs at auction. The buyer remained anonymous, but rumours were that the painting was coveted by an American buyer. It was announced less than a week later that Champagne maker Jeanne-Alexandrine Louise Pommery had acquired the piece, which silenced gossip on her supposed financial issues after leaving her grapes on the vines weeks longer than her competitors.

At Madame Pommery's death in 1891, and following the conditions of her will, the painting was donated to the Louvre. It now resides in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Gleaners.