In art history, oil paintings had always been regarded as the luxuries of the upper class. Apart from sacred religious stories, these paintings mostly depicted the lives and portraits of the royal family, and the figures in these works were all gorgeously dressed and handsome. If the working people of the lower class appeared in the paintings, in most cases, they were painted for fun.
In 1849, at age 35, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) moved his family to Barbizon, a suburb of Paris, where he spent the rest of his life. He brought his breakthrough in landscape painting to figure painting, devoting himself to observing the fields, the earth, and the people who worked.
Millet flourished on them, capturing as much as he could of what he saw and heard in the countryside, even the very small and trivial things, and Millet showed this with affection, remembered, and conveyed strongly to others. It is said that when standing in front of Millet's works, a sentimental person will smell the scent of weeds and land, mixed with the smell of cow dung, and will shed tears at a lump in the painting while evoking an infinite and beautiful thought of country life.
The Gleaners is one of the most representative works of Millet's style. It does not show any dramatic scenes, only people picking the remaining wheat ears from the field after the autumn harvest. The subject of the painting is just three peasant women bending down to gather wheat ears with busy people and wheat stacked high in the background. Yet, with its simple content, this painting brings an unusual sense of solemnity to the viewer.
Millet's horizontal composition allows monumental figures to appear on the field in the foreground. The three main figures wear red, blue, and yellow hats, and their clothes are colored in this way, firmly drawing the viewer's attention to them. Their movements are coherent and orderly, and the light source on the left side of the painting shines on them, making them appear stronger and more enduring. Except for the 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer, no one has been able to portray ordinary figures as expressively as Millet, with the stark stylistic simplicity of his generalizations.
He expressed the intimate relationship between humans and the earth, a simplicity and ordinariness that epic poetry cannot achieve. We feel a deep religious emotion from these three peasant women in their coarse clothes and heavy wooden shoes, whereas human beings bow their heads reverently in front of survival. Although the birds flying in the distance still underline the idyllic mood, we know that the idyllic life cannot be idealized. The stony bodies of human beings seem to foreshadow the weight of existence. This religious feeling makes The Gleaners transcend the usual celebration of idyllic beauty and become a truly great work of man's connection to the land and survival.
There is little doubt about these interpretations today, yet when The Gleaners was first created, its subject matter alone was enough to spark a revolution. When the work was exhibited at the Salon, it immediately drew widespread attention from public opinion. Some critics thought that Millet had obvious political intentions, as the peasants' labor in the painting conveyed the hardships of their lives, and bringing such a work to the Paris Salon was undoubtedly a challenge from the lower class to the upper class. Some people, therefore, ridiculed Millet's works as implying a violent revolution of the peasants.
In the face of all the excessive comments, Millet defended his art in a letter: "Some say I deny the beauty of the countryside, but I find more than that in it: I have seen the little flowers of which Christ spoke, and I say to you that Solomon, in his great glory, was not dressed as well as a lily among the hills!" Millet believed that art was a vocation of love, not of hate. When he expressed the suffering of the poor, he was not inciting hatred toward the richer classes. All he had to do was to try to figure out how to use the ordinary and subtle things to express the sublime ideas, for therein lays the real power. To express all this harmoniously and naturally requires not only the painter's eyes and hands but also his whole body and mind.