The Beautiful Peasants

Millet’s Angelus gives us the gift of gratitude

The light of a golden sunset gleams across the furrows of a field and gilds the sacks of a day’s work. A couple of peasant workers take a moment, in complete isolation, to say a prayer.

The Angelus (L’Angélus) by Jean-François Millet, is one of the most famous paintings in France. Reproductions hang on the walls of tens of thousands of homes, schools and churches.

The painting feels monumental despite being physically small — only 22 by 26 inches — and there’s a profound balance in the painting that I don’t think any other painting has matched.

In fact, if you look at the horizon, the figures, and the line of the wheelbarrow handles, you’ll see that it pretty much corresponds with the Instagram composing grid. That’s what makes it monumental: those strong foreground lines set against the high horizon line. This is intensified by the shadowy figures against the warm waning light. The artist said to his brother,

“It is astonishing how grand everything on the plain appears, towards the approach of night, especially when we see the figures thrown out against the sky. Then they look like giants.”

Our point of view is low as if we are beneath the figures, and they are set in the close foreground. They are presented like statues, which typically stand over us. The painting is of people who are barely above the line of destitution, yet depicts them with an elevated, supreme air of dignity.

Perhaps because of its popularity, the painting is often dismissed as sentimental. Millet’s classical art training meant that his paintings are thematised; his peasants are anonymous and idealised, like blanched ancient statues of athletes.

To modern sensibilities Millet can be cloying, and the painter’s popularity has waned, particularly in the English-speaking world. You’ll be hard pressed to find many recent books on the painter in English. But Millet nevertheless stands the test of time as a master of light and movement (though The Angelus is remarkable for its stillness), who can convey more than beholds the eye.

What we can imagine to be the soft sound of the pealing bells from the steeple in the background is a call to say the prayer of the Angelus. The woman has risen from her knees and the man has plunged his fork into the soil for the moment of repose.

The Angelus is a prayer that is said three times in the day — morning, noon and evening — and in this particular instance marks the cessation of the day’s work (the basket is full, the sun is setting). It is a prayer often said for the dead. As Millet himself explained:

“The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed very religiously and with cap in hand.”

The prayer commemorates the Annunciation to Mary that she was soon going to give birth to Jesus, the earthly incarnation of God (“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ-” “the Angel of the Lord said unto Mary-”), despite being a virgin.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

Be it done unto me according to Your Word.”

It’s an unusual religious painting in that it depicts the devotion not of saints, deities or wealthy patrons, but of simple anonymous peasants. For the faithful who hung it on their walls up and down France, it probably reflected back their humble devotion.

Millet was a prominent painter of the Barbizon School, a Realist art movement active from the 1830s that reacted against the History and Romantic painting styles. The latter styles, fashionable in the early nineteenth century, typically depicted significant happenings in a dramatic fashion. (See my story about The Raft of Medusa to get the idea). In contrast, realist painting is about the honest depiction of everyday life, about the “real” that people like us live through.

The painters of the Barbizon School took common peasants for their subject matter and turned their focus on hard work and the cycles of nature and rural life. The School is typified by simplicity, by softness of tone and looseness of brushstroke.

The Impressionists and Vincent Van Gogh in particular took inspiration from Millet and the Barbizons because of the immediate, seemingly spontaneous way they captured the beauty of nature and the dignity they afforded to lowly, simple working people.

Mourning a Loss

The more you read about the painting and its unusual history, the more it gets interesting. The painting was originally called The Prayer for the Potato Crop. It was commissioned by the American painter and Writer Thomas Gold Appleton, who never collected it.

Though it’s not known why Appleton didn’t collect the painting, Millet’s depiction of peasants — being so dignified — aroused suspicion that he may be a revolutionary. To simply aggrandise the poor was a political statement at the time.

However, as time passed the painting was accepted as a masterpiece. A bidding war between French and American buyers, pushed the price of the painting up to 800,000 Francs by the 1890s, an enormous sum of money at the time. The rescue of the painting from foreign hands became a moment of nationalist fervor.

The steeple of Chailly-en-Bière village was painted in later and the title wasn’t mentioned in correspondence for a long time. So why then were the peasants originally praying? Did peasants pray for a potato crop at such a late stage in the harvest?

Salvador Dali had an obsession with Millet’s Angelus and produced his own surrealist variations of the painting. A copy of the original is said to have hung outside one of his school classrooms. Dali read many meanings into the painting, particularly a hidden sexual tension, but also a great sense of tragedy. He claimed that the couple were mourning a dead child and insisted the Louvre x-rayed the painting to prove his theory.

Salvador Dali, the great eccentric surrealist, felt the painting to be too sad to be about the Angelus prayer. In his 1938 book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus he wrote that there was something deeply tragic about the couple that could only be explained by loss. He fervently believed that the peasants were praying over the grave of a stillborn child. When x-ray had become available as a means for investigating paintings, Dali insisted that the painting was x-rayed to prove his theory.

In 1963 the Louvre museum duly had the painting x-rayed and did actually find a box-like shape that was painted over by the basket of potatoes. Though nobody is certain, it could be a small coffin. Dali’s book was re-published in the wake of this discovery.

So this painting could well have been that of an impoverished young couple, who probably owned virtually nothing, praying over the only thing nature could give them but took away.

It’s ironic then that the prayer later became the Angelus, the prayer that commemorates the Virgin Mary getting everything nature promised her without asking for it.

Whatever the couple may be praying for, the painting helps us think about work in a different light. The interruption of work by prayer sanctifies work. The tradition of the Angelus springs from the balance of work and prayer practiced by monks and nuns, who see their toil as harmonious with their devotion.

Many of us may not believe in God anymore, and we may not believe in the value of our jobs. Most people reading this will have frenetic lives and may well work at computers, rather than in fields.

But like the peasants of The Angelus perhaps there’s a moment to pause at work, to contemplate on our own work and show gratitude for those who toil for everything we normally take for granted, wherever they may be in the world.

The painting is a reminder that all there is for us is hope (prayer) and sustenance (soil), everything else is a gift from other people.

Thank you for reading.

If you enjoyed this piece, I also wrote a more in-depth article about a wholly different painting that shocked the world:

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