French artist Jean Francois Millet painted haunting, and sometimes bleak, scenes of ordinary rural life in the 19th century. His painting The Sowers became the symbol of European liberalism and socialism. Millet’s work, while popular in his own century and later with French Impressionists, gradually fell out of favor. Modernism lost interest in images of the rural poor.
But there has been a renewed interest in the work of the once popular artist. On a recent visit to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, instead of rushing to the floor with the French Impressionists, I found myself searching for Millet’s oeuvres. I love his earthy hues and sympathetic snapshots of rural French peasants. His paintings are an encyclopedia of farm work: digging, hoeing, planting, reaping, spreading manure. I remember some of his paintings, like The Gleaners, being used as illustrations in my Sunday School manuals.
Millet’s outlook on life was fatalistic and conservative. For him, the peasants were trapped in a never ending cycle of toil, bound to the earth and its seasons. And that was the root experience of his own peasant childhood. He was born in 1814 in the village of Gruchy (Normandy). “I will swear to you,” he wrote to a friend in 1851, “at the risk of seeming even more a socialist, that it is the human side that touches me most . . . and it is never the joyous side that shows itself to me: I don’t know where it is. I have never seen it.” Millet died in 1875.
Millet had his greatest influence on post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh. Millet and his work are mentioned many times in Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. I served part of my Mormon mission in the Borinage area of southern Belgium, in coal mining country. Van Gogh lived in this area for a time and, like me, began his ministry there. One of the homes Van Gogh was reputed to have lived in was located near my missionary apartment in Mons, Belgium. During his time in the Borinage, Vincent came to identify with the miners, their lifestyles, and their families. This fascination with the working class later shows up in his works depicting peasant life (ie. Digger in a Potato Field).
Unlike Millet earthy tones, Van Gogh eventually splashed vibrant, heavy-stroked colors across his canvases. Since my mission, I’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout much of southern France. I particularly enjoy the area around Arles, the countryside and its people greatly inspired Dutch post-impressionist. Provence, France, is still a beautiful area and a wonderful place to visit. The area is haunted by the ghost of Vincent.