Jean François Millet's The Gleaners

 Jean François Millet grew up in a poor farming family on the coast of Normandy.  Despite his humble upbringing, Millet was very well educated in both art and literature and decided to move to Paris in 1837 to further his studies in art.  Due to his social standing he was not well received at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, instead he joined the studio of a minor master painter, Paul Delaroche.  Millet's personal experience contributed to his painting style and he never forgot his background.   

Millet's talent as a painter was evident and he started receiving critical acclaim in the early 1840's. However, Millet spent much of his life in poverty and continued to struggle despite his successes.  

The Gleaners, Jean François Millet, the Louvre, 1857

He preferred to live in the countryside rather than Paris, he moved to Barbizon in 1849 and remained there for the rest of his life.  Millet's style is considered that of the Barbizon School of painters who painted from life and from nature and embraced a new type of realism.  Millet was not interested in either the popular Neoclassical or Romantic styles of painting; instead he painted what he knew: farmers and peasants performing their daily tasks of work.  

That style is evident in works such as The Gleaners, which was exhibited in the annual Salon of 1857.  What we are seeing is a depiction of the lowest type of peasants, those who gather the scraps of hay after the harvest has taken place.  The woman are hunched over, their lives are so connected with the earth that none of their heads are placed above the horizon line.  However they are shown in a warm glowing light, set apart from the neutral background by wearing muted primary colors.  Their proportions and placement in this painting add to the feeling that these women, who were on the bottom of the socioeconomic scale work hard enough to be considered the equivalents of any figure to be featured in painting.  
Peasant life had been depicted since the Baroque but not in the same manner as Millet.  Earlier paintings of peasants showed a rowdy bunch of characters, peasants as an allegory or an overly romanticized view of life.  Millet broke new ground by portraying his realistic figures with a quiet grace and dignity that had only been shown before in subject matter such as mythic heroes and royalty. 

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