Heeding nature's hints in the way of change

In the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1848, a demand for paintings that reflected new democratic and progressive aspirations marked a perceptible shift in artistic taste, and the northern tradition of naturalism and social realism came back into fashion. The peasant - an archetype of the dispossessed to some, and a romanticized ideal to others - became the central figure in the new art.

Thus Jean-Francois Millet found, probably to his surprise, that many of his paintings were taken to be the products of a radical sensibility. In fact, Millet tended towards the other extreme, as he thought of the typical peasant as being a humble victim of life's unsentimental toughness, a noble element in nature's incessant cycle of toil and rest, not an embittered outcast from society. Millet's sense of social rebellion was comparatively low-key: without overtly condemning the inevitable development of the Industrial Revolution, he implicitly expressed his reservations about its onset in his positive desire to retain the simple, unspoiled character of country life. Such an attitude has its dangers, and Millet occasionally fell prey to the trap of sentimentality, but his work is more often than not redeemed and strengthened by his rigorous idealism and his honest, direct observation of nature.

Millet was a more natural draughtsman than painter, and his drawings have long been admired as being among the finest of the nineteenth century. He drew with extraordinary ease, modelling his subjects with soft, expressive lines that conveyed the sensitive touch of his guiding hand. For that reason, he chose to use black crayon rather than charcoal for his most characteristic drawings of the 1850s, which enabled him to render half tones gesturally, with a broad sweep of lines, instead of with the rubbed greys of charcoal.

Shepherds Showing Travellers Their Way (also known as The Weary Travellers or The Pilgrims of Emmaus) is one of Millet's best drawings of that period. Its subject, which has obvious biblical overtones, had occurred in Netherlandish painting ever since the sixteenth century, and the composition suggests the influence of Courbet's The Meeting, which was painted two years earlier, in 1855 . Although formally related, the intentions of the two artists could not have been less alike: Courbet's conception - the artist being greeted by his patron and servant - was naturalistic and direct, while Millet's subject was realistic and suggestive. In other words, the latter was concerned with conveying the substance of the story in a manner that could immediately be understood by his contemporaries, not with reproducing a specific incident with maximum verisimilitude.

In Millet's drawing, the two travellers on the left have clearly embarked on a lengthy journey. One of them, stick and bundle on his shoulder, and wearing a countryman's ''sabots,'' has addressed the shepherd with consideration and politeness, to judge by the hat held loosely in his hand, and he gazes into the far distance, in the direction of the shepherd's outstretched arm. His companion , fatigued by a long tramp under the bright sun, appears to be less accustomed to the physical demands of his travels, and has the air of a city-dweller. The shepherd, on the other hand, is almost part of the landscape, and his heavy, rooted stance in the shade of the bank suggests the simplicity and instinctive wisdom of a personification of nature. He is forthright, at one with the environment, and his directness contrasts touchingly with the hesitant sniff of his dog.

The drawing's inner meaning is as vital and relevant as ever it was a century and a quarter ago. In spite of the shepherd's integrity and wholesomeness, a burdened spirit is implied by his heavy shoulders and darkened face. His very rootedness forms a boundary to his life. The travellers, however, stand in the light, and although they appear tentative and dependent on the shepherd's intimate experience of the land, they are prepared to learn, and, what is more, to act on that newfound knowledge. Millet seems to be pointing out to us that the two travellers and the shepherd show trust in each other, as though prepared to admit their limitations and make evident the mutual respect that is the first step towards recognition of equality. Besides that, he appears to be making the assertion that science and nature, as well as progress and tradition, are interdependent. More than ever, whether it be in human or symbolic terms, his message is worth taking to heart.

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