The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet

The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)

My Daily Art Display for today starts off with a general knowledge question for you.  What or who  is a gleaner?  The reason I ask is because that is the title of today’s painting by Jean-François Millet.  Don’t know?  I must be honest I thought by looking at the picture a gleaner was somebody who cut the corn crops but actually that is not the case.  A gleaner is a person who collects left-over crops from farmer’s field after they have been harvested.  It was traditionally part of the natural cycle of the agricultural calendar undertaken by the poor, and was regarded as a right to unwanted leftovers. Although the practice of agricultural gleaning has gradually died away due to a number of historical factors (including industrialisation and the organisation of social welfare for the poor), there are nonetheless still people in the present day that we might understand to be gleaners.  Can you imagine what a back-breaking task this was for the poor and needy ?  Actually modern day gleaning is practiced by humanitarian groups who collect food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown away, and distribute the gleaned food to the poor and hungry.

The painting of peasant life which was one of Millet’s favourite  subjects was first shown in 1857 but the art critics gave it a very mixed reception.   The setting was the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest on the outskirts of Paris, which attracted many en plein-air Impressionist painters of that time.  Many observers were a trifle uncomfortable with the subject, that of the very poor having to carry out such an arduous task.   The subject of works of art in those times was often dominated by the depiction of the rich in all their finery and many considered the depiction of poor country women in their ragged clothes grotesque and believed such representations should not be gracing galleries.  The difference in the social standing between the women and a landowner is highlighted by the large stacks of wheat which has been harvested and will earn the owner lots of money in comparison to the scavenging women who just want food to live.   The distaste of the subject is brought home by Griselda Pollock in her book Millet,saying,  that at the time, the French author and art critic Paul de Saint Victor commented:

“…His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions; they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved…”

If we look back in the Old Testament Bible we come across the tale of Ruth who was a gleaner but in the bible she is the personification of virtue and modesty but Millet’s gleaners are simply shown as women who, because of their desperate circumstances, are forced to act as gleaners to survive the hardships of life.

Millet’s three women are show in the field, presumably having been given permission by the landowner, scavenging for “forgotten” ears of corn which the harvesters had failed to collect.   We see them in the foreground, bent over double, scouring the ground before them for the elusive grains.  Each woman is shown at various stages of their task.  The woman furthest away is bending down to pick up the grain, the middle woman is picking up the grain and the nearest woman has just straightened up. 

The lone horse rider to the right, in the background, is probably the landowner’s overseer, who makes sure the harvesting operation runs smoothly and that the female gleaners only take what they are entitled to.  He has distanced himself from the workers, which reminds us of the social distinction between management and worker.  Millet, through the way he has depicted the scene has represented the class structure of a farming community.  His three women embody an animal force deeply absorbed by a painstaking task. The contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, male and female spheres is forcefully rendered by the artist.

The angled light from the sun illuminates the large haystacks and in some ways gives the three gleaners a kind of statuesque appearance highlighting their hands, shoulders and backs whilst enhancing the colours of their clothes and caps.

The Gleaners is an example of the Naturalism genre of painting.   Naturalism is the representation of the world with a minimum of abstraction or stylistic distortion.  It is characterised by convincing effects of light and surface texture and by the evocation of feelings and moods.  It is an approach to art in which the artist tries to represent objects as they are actually observed rather than in a conceptual format.

Have you a favourite painting you would like me to add to My Daily Art Display?   If so let me know what it is and why you like it.