Paeans to the Working Poor

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.

Jean-Francois Millet's "The Gleaners" (1857)

Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Gleaners” (1857)

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).

Vincent Van Gogh's "Digger in a Potato Field"

Vincent Van Gogh’s “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.

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8 Responses to Paeans to the Working Poor

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    Souren Melikian (NYT, October 3, 1998) described one of Millet’s works as oozing “with self-conscious piety and kindness.”

    When comparing Van Gogh to Millet, he writes: “There is an explosive energy in the pciture and a coloristic stridency that are the very negation of all that Millet stood for.” “And Van Gogh screams where Millet demurely murmurs.”

  2. Roger Hansen says:

    I was watching a PBS show on Sunday where the narrator was painting in southern France, in Van Gogh country. The narrator mentioned that the post-Impressionist was influenced by the dramatic Flemish landscape artist van Ruysdael. Particularly when in his treatment of clouds. Van Gogh frequently mentions van Ruysdael in his letters to his brother Theo.

    The narrator also mentioned that Van Gogh failed as an art dealer, failed as a missionary, failed in love, and was a financial failure. I also was less than a successful missionary. Particularly in the Borinage area of Belgium.

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    In a letter to Theo, Vincent wrote: “The Ruisdaels in the Louvre are magnificent.”

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    Some artists go out in a blaze of glory. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night was produced by a man who would take his own life the following year.

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    Yesterday (3 Apr 10), I went to the UofU Museum of Fine Arts. They had a small exhibition titled: “Pablo O’Higgins: Works on Paper.” O’Higgins’ displayed works were mostly small, black and white prints, and very political, showing heroic images of Mexican laborers.

    O’Higgins (nee Paul Higgins) was a Utahn by birth (something he ever mentioned), but a Mexican by choice. He chose art as a profession, studying with Diego Rivera. His politics were radical left. And led a rather enigmatic life.

    According to Carma Wadley (in the SLTrib): “Higgins’ father, Edward was an assistant attorney general, and was one of the attorneys who urged the Utah Supreme Court to uphold the trial court’s conviction of Joe Hill and go forward with his execution. Higgins was 11 at the time of the execution. He never made reference to it after he moved to Mexico, but it might have influenced his future political views.”

    At the age of 20, Higgins moved to Mexico and became an assistant to Diego Rivera. He worked for Rivera for several years, and along the way, he changed his name to Pablo Esteban O’Higgins and joined the Mexican Communist Partty. Eventually he set up his own shop with the intent of spreading politically inspired images to often-illiterate audiences. O’Higgins eventually became a Mexican citizen. After Stalin, he became less committed to the Communist party, but retain his interest in socialist causes.

    Throughout O’Higgins’ life you can see a sustained interest in Mexico’s working class and their struggle for freedom.

  6. Roger Hansen says:

    Utahn Susan Vogel is writing a book about Pablo titled: “Becoming Pablo O’Higgins.”

  7. rogerdhansen says:

    During the winter of 2010/11 BYU Museum of Art had an exhibit of the works of Danish artist Carl Heinrich Bloch. In Mormon culture, Bloch is best known for his paintings of Christ. But it his images of regular life that most impress me.

    According to Nathan N. Waite writing in “BYU/Magazine” (Winter 2011) “viewing Rembrandt’s compassionate treatment of subjects–even common people with no social status–bolstered Bloch’s interest in painting everyday people and everyday life.”

    I particularly like “Char Woman Feeding the Birds” (1886).

  8. rogerdhansen says:

    Mormon artist Joseph Paul Vorst depicted the working poor in his emotionally moving images of Great Depression.

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