Today is “Labor Day” here in the U.S., a holiday set aside to honor the economic and social contributions of working people to the society. Ironically, the holiday has come to represent leisure — a three day weekend signifying the unofficial end of Summer.
Perhaps, in the midst of a current political climate in which legislators backed by big money corporate contributors are making a systematic attempt to strip public labor unions of their right to collective bargaining, it’s time to refocus attention on the original significance of the holiday (even though its creation was a matter of political expediency), and not just the barbecues and mini-vacations.
The representation of peasant labor as a reality of life, and not simply as incidental “color” and window dressing for other subjects more palatable to the art-buying upper classes, can be traced to 19th Century French painter Jean-François Millet.
Unlike his contemporary Gustav Courbet, who also broke with tradition by portraying the working poor in the light of realism, Millet was actually from a peasant family.
Though his paintings of toil in the fields evoked charges of advocating the incipient Socialist movement, as well as lambasts of ugliness from his detractors (of whom there were many), Millet’s intentions were not to foment unrest and change the status of peasant workers. He saw their lot from his own childhood experience as inevitable and unchanging; his goal as an artist was to paint what he saw and what he knew with empathy and understanding.
His depiction of peasants and their work as possibly “noble”, and therefore elevated beyond their place, aroused the ire of the upper classes, who were, of course, the potential art buyers. After his initial struggles against critical detractors, during which he sold paintings for much less than the asking price and repeatedly had to borrow money, he eventually achieved success and establishment acceptance, and in 1870 was even elected to the Salon jury.
Millet had significant impact on other artists, both his contemporaries, many of whom formed the core of the Barbizon School, and those who came after. Vincent van Gogh in particular came back to Millet again and again as a source of inspiration, as you can see in his copy (images above, bottom right) of Millet’s Sower (bottom left)
Two of Millet’s works in particular have become iconic, The Gleaners (image above, top), showing peasants continuing to work after the work is done, exercising their right to glean the field of stray grains of wheat after the harvest was finished, and The Angelus (second down).
The Angelus became one of the most reproduced paintings in history, probably because of religious connotations, though Millet’s intention was simply to show a brief respite from toil, permitted for workers to stop and pray at the tolling of the church bell.
Both paintings have been the subject of homages by other artists. Salvador Dalí was obsessed with The Angelus, painting his own versions of it into several paintings.
Working peasants were not Millet’s only subjects, he also painted commissioned portraits, landscapes and genre paintings, and was an accomplished draftsman and pastel artist (above, seventh down), but the workers were where his heart was.
Whatever the conditions of their toil, Millet often bathed his peasants and their fields in golden light. He also placed them in an atmospheric evocation of the seasons, the inescapable cycles of life and death and work.