'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
—Simple Gifts by Elder Joseph Brackett
In the second half of the nineteenth century in France, artists such as Gustave Courbet became captivated with the world of the peasant as a subject for their art. The hard life of the poor matched with their simple, hardy faith led to images of great piety as well as great strength. For Courbet and others, however, they could only paint such images from the outside looking in, having been born comfortably middle class or better. Born October 4, 1814, Jean-François Millet grew up in a poor peasant family, and learned their world of work literally firsthand. Paintings such as Harvesters Resting (Ruth and Boaz) (above, from 1850-1853) speak of the respect and awe Millet had for the world he never truly left behind him. Millet spent three years working on Harvesters Resting, lavishing attention on the work as if it were a royal portrait. In such works, Millet takes the mythological-historical landscapes of his idol Nicolas Poussin and updates them with real-life field workers in contemporary dress against the recognizably French countryside. With other artists such as Théodore Rousseau, Millet founded the Barbizon school, which harvested the visual and spiritual richness of the Forest of Fountainbleau and its surroundings and brought realism back to French painting.
In perhaps Millet’s greatest image of the nobility of work and workers, The Gleaners (above, from 1857), Millet bathes the women bent over the collect the very last vestiges of the harvest, “the gleanings,” in a light previously reserved for religious figures. The women bow down not in servitude to authority but in humility before the land and God. Work becomes almost a form of prayer. Millet’s own deep sense of the sanctity of work emerges strongest in such scenes. In a way, his labor over his paintings mirrored their labor over the earth. As revolutionary as someone as Courbet was in painting scenes such as Burial at Ornans (1849-1850), Millet was even more revolutionary in taking the conventions of art history, such as the depiction of holiness through light, and bending them to his purpose. Courbet, of course, played with art history in his own way in painting a lowly country funeral like a grand, epic moment, but Millet’s personal spiritual link to his subject drives him to even more audacious lengths.
Millet loved the works of Michelangelo. The grand figures of the Italian master strewn all over Italy and embedded into the mind of every European artist afterwards led Millet to Michelangelo-ize his own favorite subject. In The Sower (above, from 1850), Millet takes one of Michelangelo’s larger than life figures and clothes him in peasant garb. The gesture of the sower spreading seed seems as sweeping and majestic as anything done by the Biblical figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Sower strides across the landscape like a new Adam giving birth to a new Eden. Vincent van Gogh loved The Sower and painted his own version of Millet’s work. Praise for Millet’s vision of the nobility of the peasant life fills van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Millet’s unique painting style and unique combination of religious piety and social liberalism appealed to later artists such as Georges Seurat and Camille Pissarro. For all the great ill-tempered artists throughout art history, Millet seems to be the nicest of the nice guys—a true believer in the hidden majesty of the simple life who passes down to us the simple gifts of his upbringing through his heart-touching works.