The French artist Jean-Franois Millet (1814-1875) did not invent the idea of making high art of peasant life. In France he had an 18th-century forebear, Chardin. And in the 17th-century Netherlands a large number of artists had made art from the everyday occupations of the most ordinary rustic people. Earlier still, the 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel came to be nicknamed "Peasant Bruegel."
But Millet stamped this kind of painting with his own rigorous naturalism, his peasants often dominating the landscape in which they work. His admiration and sympathy for such individuals instills his art with a proud humility.
Millet had an intense distaste for the artificialities of much academic art of his day, which was based on classical myth. It would be wrong to conclude, though, that because Millet preferred primitive subjects to academic suavities he was himself a kind of "peasant of the paintbrush."
True, his parents were peasants - prosperous and respected ones. And although the young Millet, before he moved to Paris, frequently helped with farm chores, his artistic talent was early recognized and he was allowed to train as a painter.
The down-to-earth realism of Millet's art displays respect for the rough-hewn heroic nature of rural life. Who else could turn a picture of a farm laborer spreading manure into something monumentally beautiful as well as something real enough to sensitize the nostrils? And his peasant couple walking to dig potatoes in the fields in this painting - the wife with her basket over her head - is neither a sentimental idyll nor a rude comedy. Millet believed in, and knew firsthand, the subjects he painted. But his art turns them into universal symbols.
He painted two versions of this subject. The first is in Glasgow. The second is in Cincinnati.
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