Jean-François Millet was a French painter whose style tightroped the line between naturalism and realism. He was also one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. The Barbizon painters were part of a movement towards realism in art in reaction to the more formalized romantic movement of the time. During the Revolutions of 1848 artists gathered at Barbizon to follow the ideas of John Constable, making nature the subject of their paintings. Millet extended the idea from landscape to figures — peasant figures, scenes of peasant life, and work in the fields. In The Gleaners, Millet portrays three peasant women working at the harvest. On the surface there appears to be no drama and no story told, merely three peasant women in a field. This is distinctly different than the standard, where servants were depicted in paintings as subservient to a noble or king. Here, light illuminates the women’s shoulders as they carry out their work. Behind them, the field that stretches into the distance is bathed in golden light, under a wide, magnificent sky. The forms of the three figures themselves, nearly silhouetted against the lighter field, show balance and harmony.
A man and a woman are reciting the Angelus, a prayer which commemorates the annunciation made to Mary by the angel Gabriel. They have stopped digging potatoes and all the tools used for this task – the potato fork, the basket, the sacks and the wheelbarrow – are strewn around them. The Angelus was reproduced frequently in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Salvador Dalí was fascinated by this work, and wrote an analysis of it, The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet. Dalí thought that there was something hidden in the canvas due to the presence of a feeling of anguish. Confirming Dalí’s own interpretation of the picture, an X-ray examination of Millet’s canvas has revealed a geometrical shape between the two figures, the coffin of their dead child.
Millet & Van Gogh
In May 1889, increasingly aware of his mental instability, van Gogh checked into a hospital at St.-Rémy-de-Provence, where, over the course of the next year, he painted some 150 canvases. Some of the work from this time is characterized by swirls, including The Starry Night, his best-known painting. At Saint-Rémy, he also painted copies of works by such artists as Delacroix, Rembrandt, and Millet, using black-and-white photographs and prints. In fall and winter 1889–90, he executed twenty-one copies after Millet; he described his copies as “interpretations” or “translations,” comparing his role as an artist to that of a musician playing music written by another composer.