PRINT February 1970

City vs. Country: The Rural Image in French Painting

IMAGES OF THE MODERN CITY, its factories, its machines and its workers, would not provide a sufficient basis for a study of the way art is related to the urban-industrial revolution. On the contrary, such images are relatively rare, and it is frequently latent or indirect imagery which provides the essential clues.1 For example, the art of the early 20th century showed a stubborn retention of traditional images despite the willful expression of a new dynamism. The Futurist Boccioni, regardless of his revolutionary statements about machinery, retained the nude human form and the horse in many of his major works. Duchamp-Villon’s principal sculpture evokes a horse, and Brancusi often chose birds and fish, pre-industrial images whose natural state suggested speed and streamlined form. Kandinsky embodied his apocalyptic visions in floods, tottering city walls and horsemen.

In 19th-century painting, direct references to the urban-industrial revolution are not common. The Impressionists, it is true, occasionally painted railway stations, busy riverports and the new parks and boulevards which Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann had added to Paris. Nevertheless it is fair to say that themes of urban entertainment, suburban relaxation and rural nature dominate French art of the 19th century, to the near exclusion of machine and worker, those basic constituents of the cataclysmic changes taking place.

This does not mean that the artists were unaware of the way in which the city and man’s life were being altered. Renoir, painter of suburban dalliance, wrote diatribes against machinism, and a major artist of the preceding generation had written in 1853:

Will steam stop before churches and cemeteries? And will the Frenchman, returning to his fatherland after some years, be reduced to asking where it was that his village stood [. . .]? For villages will be as useless as the rest; villagers are those who cultivate the soil, because they have to stay there where their care is required at every moment; it will be necessary to build cities suited to this workless and disinherited mass of people, who will no longer have anything to do in the fields; it will be necessary to construct immense barracks where they will lodge pell-mell. [. . .] Instead of transforming the human race into a vile herd, let it keep its real heritage, its attachment, its devotion to the soil! [. . .] Alas! poor peasants, poor villagers! [. . .] With only the slightest hopes, they vie with one another in leaving the work of the fields; they rush to the cities, only to be disappointed; they complete there the perversion of the feelings of dignity which the love of labor gives, and the more your machines feed them, the more they will become degraded.2

This passionate statement, which so aptly predicts the rise of urban ghettoes, and which proclaims the conservative virtues of peasant devotion to the soil, is by Eugène Delacroix, the great Romantic master who did not paint the city of which he speaks, nor the peasant either. He is best known for subjects drawn from Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe and North African life. The lesson is a simple one: we need not find a direct association between an artist’s known social feelings and the subjects he chooses.

My general thesis therefore, perhaps surprisingly at first glance, is that the peasant was among the most important subjects for the embodiment of artists’ attitudes toward the urban-industrial revolution. To give emphasis to materials I know best, and to provide continuity as I deal with relationships often based on intangible and circumstantial evidence, I will write most often of Jean-François Millet (1814–75). He has been known as the “peasant painter” since the 1850s, and any interpretation of peasant art would have to be measured against his work, in any event.

First we should recall the phenomenal growth of Paris in the 19th century, and its effects on the countryside. City cannot be divorced from country, and once studied together, the relationship becomes clear between urban and rural upheavals on the one hand, and the painting of peasant subjects on the other. Perhaps the best way to indicate the changes in Paris in the middle of the last century is to record the fact that in the Department of the Seine, encompassing Paris and its suburbs, the population between 1790 and 1831 only rose a total of 10,000, or about 1 1/2%. This was over a period of 40 years. But between 1831 and 1851, only 20 years, the population doubled, that is, it grew by 100%.3 To accommodate this burgeoning society, Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann undertook the massive transformation of Paris which gave the city much of its present aspect. From 1852 to 1857 there were about 24,000 new buildings erected in the capital and its suburbs, let alone the hundreds of miles of new streets.4 (It should be noted that the stone breaker, prominent in the work of Courbet, Millet and many others, although ostensibly a rural image, is thereby an echo of the building campaigns in the city; Fontainebleau forest, favorite site of the Barbizon school, contained some of the quarries for Paris.)

Where did the mushrooming population of Paris come from? Principally from the countryside. France’s birth rate then, as now, was very low, and between 1846 and 1856 there was only a net rise of 640,000 for all of France. To give some measure of the dominance of Paris, its population rise in the last half of that ten-year period was 305,000, roughly equal to the national total. What really happened was what the French were already calling the “depopulation of the countryside.” Most of the 86 departments lost people at the expense of the large cities and industrial regions. The Northeast departments lost 200,000 between 1851 and 1856, except for Le Nord, the industrial region, which gained 56,000. In the Ile de France, the departments which touched Paris on all sides lost 55,000, many of them counted among the capital’s phenomenal increase.

The only word for this vast shifting of rural peoples is migration. So great were the numbers leaving for the city, and so great was the utter disruption of traditional harvesting and culture, that by 1860 a total of nearly one-sixth of people who lived on the land left their villages each year, some of them as migratory agricultural workers who would later return, but many never to come back.

How did artists react to these dramatic changes? It so happens that statements directly on the subject, like the one by Delacroix already cited, are relatively rare, and we must rely on circumstantial evidence, essentially the juxtaposition of peasant subjects and the changes in city and country. To move from juxtaposition to interrelationship, a higher form of analysis, is the easier when we learn that there was in general, at least among sensitive observers, an awareness of the connection between the new city and the plight of the countryside.

Evidence of an awareness of rural depopulation appears as early as 1846, in the book published that year by Eugène Bonnemère, Les Paysans au XIXe Siècle. It was the winning entry among 49 in a competition sponsored that year by the Academy of Nantes on “The causes of emigration from the countryside to the cities and the means of stopping it.” From this time onward, there was an increasing amount of attention paid to rural emigration. In 1848 the National Assembly ordered an investigation of the emigration and ways to prevent it. There was, as we see, an assumption that it was bad and must be halted, and although the need of the city for labor was apparent, many reformers were willing to call a halt to city growth, if necessary, to stem the disruption of country life. After the Revolution of 1848 or, rather, after the consolidation of Louis Napoleon’s power in 1852, the number of sociological studies of rural emigration grew very suddenly, and by the end of the decade they were commonplace. Between 1855 and 1862, about fifteen major books appeared, and a number of learned competitions were sponsored by various provincial and national academies. The national census became much more sophisticated, and it was not hard to find evidence of the great upheaval taking place. The government was well aware of the phenomenon and embarked on a number of investigations and remedial programs which we should contrast to the pre-1848 period. For example, in 1846 there had been a national subsidy for the royal theaters amounting to 1,144,000 francs, but subsidies for agriculture for the entire nation came only to 900,000 francs.5 That had all changed by the middle 1850s, when agriculture and rural workers became one of the central issues of the day. It is against this background of the sudden rise to prominence of the depopulation of the countryside that we must place the exactly parallel rise of peasant art in mid-century France.

As 1848 approached, there was an increasing significance given to genre and popular subjects which could be associated with that new hero, the common man. Mention began to be made of the Le Nain brothers, nearly forgotten painters of the 17th century. In 1847, Thoré-Bürger compared Millet already to the Le Nain;6 in 1848 the new and rather revolutionary staff of the Louvre re-attributed pictures by the Le Nain that had been given to other artists, and gave them prominence in new installations; in 1850 Courbet’s friend Champfleury published his first article on the Le Nain, and the revival continued until his brochure of 1862 which drew together the life and works of these major ancestors of peasant painting.

Another example of the mid-century’s concern with peasant subjects is the appearance of rural themes in contemporary poetry, song and novels. Admitting that there had always been rustic themes in literature, we nonetheless find that on the eve of the 1848 Revolution, the German writers, Hebel, Gotthelf and Auerbach appear in their first translations, and their French counterparts, Courbet’s friend, Max Buchon, who translated many of the German works, Gustave Mathieu and Pierre Dupont, all come to public attention at the same time.7 Unlike former writers, these men treat rural life with considerable realism, and with relatively little of the embellishments of Romanticism. Besides, the relationship to current political and social upheaval was apparent since Buchon, Mathieu and Dupont were all political radicals. Dupont, the writer of populist songs and poems, claimed a social role for his writing in the preface he wrote in 1851 for his collected works: “My rustic songs have found their echoes and have opened the way to social or political refrains [. . .]”, and later on the same page he flatly states that his writing foretold the revolution.8

For painters of peasant themes we will have very few such statements. Gustave Courbet (181977) is the notable exception. He openly proclaimed his political radicalism, and many of his most important paintings, such as The Stonebreakers, 1849 (formerly Dresden), and The Burial at Ornans, 1849 (Louvre), were controversial precisely because they claimed for rural subjects an equality of pictorial rank with themes from religion, mythology and history. However, the pervasiveness of peasant motifs can be demonstrated to be not the political expression of one or of a few artists, but a social and artistic phenomenon of remarkable extent related to the Revolution of 1848 and its aftermath. Beginning in the late 1840s, and reaching their peaks in the 1850s, are all these allied events: the growth and renovation of Paris; an awareness of the depopulation of the countryside; the upsurge of peasant themes in literature and popular music; the revival of the Le Nain brothers; the rise to great prominence of landscape as a major category of painting, and the mushrooming of animal and genre painting at the same time; the concomitant development of vast city parks (landscapes for city-dwellers); the great boom in riverine and seacoast resorts (seascapes for city-dwellers on vacation); the sudden notoriety of Courbet and Millet. The critic Castagnary, one of the chief spokesmen for the new naturalism, summarized it most succinctly:

Religious painting, and historical or heroic painting, have gradually been weakened, in proportion to the weakening of theocracy and monarchy, the social organisms to which they refer; their elimination, nearly complete today, is bringing about the absolute domination of genre painting, landscape, and portraiture, which stem from individualism: in art as in society, man becomes more and more man.9

THE NEW MAN, OSTENSIBLY STRIPPED of religious, mythological and historical references — actually still present, but transformed as we shall see—appeared in some of the most notable early works by Millet and Courbet. Millet’s Winnower,10 a vigorous standing male, shaking his basket, became the embodiment of the spirit of 1848 when it appeared in that year’s Salon, its red kerchief unconsciously echoing the great Revolution of a half-century earlier. Courbet who, like Millet, had exhibited hardly any peasant subjects before 1848, took the figure of the Winnower in the following year for his famous Stonebreakers, turning him to a three-quarter view and substituting stones for grain. The second figure in Courbet’s painting has the marked monumentality of Poussin (and recalls’ a figure in the Louvre’s Et in Arcadia Ego), for it is evident that in the laborer and the peasant, both artists found reincarnations of the heroic figures of Renaissance and Baroque art. Millet, a more conservative man and artist than Courbet, devoted himself to peasant life more unreservedly. He moved to Barbizon in 1849 and passed his life there, seldom departing from rural subjects; Courbet became a Parisian by adoption and challenged many of the great subjects of the past, including portraiture, the nude and urban genre.

In his first few years at Barbizon11 Millet gave to his paintings a passion and an energy we should associate with the mood of 1848 and the mid-century celebration of work. His Woodsawyers (Victoria & Albert Museum) and Faggot Gatherers, both of 1850–51, show peasants sawing wood and binding faggots with Michelangelesque gestures. Shoulders rise up in great curves which are continued by the sweep of active arms, forming continuous pictorial movements which cover naturalistic detail, the better to induce a feeling of integral thrusts of power. Other figures have limbs drawn tautly toward the body, squeezing, pressing and gathering in centripetal energy, as though steel springs were being wound by the artist. How different these figures are, both individually and as naturalistic groups, from the famous Harvesters (Louvre) by Leopold Robert, shown in the Salon of 1831. Robert’s Italian peasants are, by comparison, of a past era when they were looked upon as actors on a stage, not as real men really living the lives of peasants. They strut and posture and in the great variety of their types and their poses, they are intended to recapitulate much of peasant life all in one picture, rather than to show a particular and true action. Furthermore, Robert takes the observer outside France to Italy, whereas Millet strips away the literary and anecdotal trappings and forces the observer to a direct confrontation with the living French peasant in the midst of his labors.

The Sower, exhibited in the winter of 1850–51,12 is Millet’s most famous early work, and right away it was accepted as the celebration of the new man. One observer compared it directly with Robert’s Harvesters and concluded that:

These two painters, in different degrees and under different climates, have understood and rendered the ideal of the poetry of the countryside from the modern point of view. The one [Robert] sought it in the melancholy and grandeur of old Roman types; the other in the suffering of the race of the Gauls, in the miseries of the rustic proletariat.13

The last phrase in this citation was typical of the public view of Millet. He was greeted as a reformer who painted the peasant in order to bring about an improvement in his lot. The peasantry had become a radical force in the period 1848–52, and memories of earlier peasant revolts and an awareness of the social ills following upon the vast shifting of rural peoples, made of him a figure of immediate concern. Liberals saw in him the very essence of contemporaneity:

Come, poor laborer, sow your seed, throw out to the soil your fistfuls of grain! The soil is fertile and will bear fruit, but next year as this, you will be poor and you will work by the sweat of your brow, because men have so well arranged things that work is a malediction, the work which will be the only real pleasure of intelligent beings in a regenerated society. His [the Sower’s] gesture has a Michelangelesque energy and his tone a strange power [. . .]; he is a Florentine construction [. . .]. He is the modern Demos.13

Conservatives also regarded Millet’s peasant as a contemporary figure but one calculated to stir rebellion. When The Gleaners (Louvre) was shown in 1857, Paul de St. Victor was somehow prompted to think of the Reign of Terror and called the three women, although they are inertly performing a peaceful act, the “three fates of pauperism.”15 This was an extreme reaction, but one finds on all sides similar points of view expressed. A simple picture of a beautiful young shepherdess seated by a hedge stimulated one critic to regret the “stupidity and [. . .] indifference in her facial expression“ and to refer to her as “this poor idiot.”16 And others wondered why Millet did not dress his peasants in beautiful clothes, instead of “rags of poverty” or the clothes “of a village beggar.”17

It is undoubtedly correct to assume that Millet’s Death and the Woodcutter. (Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek, Copenhagen) was rejected by the Salon jury of 1859, despite its evocation of La Fontaine, because it seemed to solicit the sympathy of the public for the plight of the peasant. Conservatives must have felt justified in their view when they saw Alexandre Dumas take up the cudgel for Millet. Incensed at the exclusion of the picture, he published a pamphlet which stated that the woodcutter as Millet showed him “is not the peasant of 1660, but the proletarian of 1859,”18 thus associating the artist with contemporary radical views.

When we pause to examine such paintings as Death and the Woodcutter and The Gleaners in the light of Millet’s own views, a very different attitude emerges, paradoxically, an opposite one. For the artist the Woodcutter represented not a cry for change, but the age-old struggle of man for existence, a struggle which would continue forever, unchanged. Millet was a fatalist who saw no possibility of reform, but instead found in the peasant of his day the proof that life had continued unaltered since time immemorial. He wrote to his friend Sensier in 1851:

You are sitting under a tree, enjoying all the comfort and quiet which it is possible to find in this life, when suddenly you see a poor creature, loaded with a heavy faggot coming up the narrow path opposite. The unexpected and always striking way in which this figure appears before your eyes reminds you instantly of the sad fate of humanity—weariness. The impression is Similar to that which La Fontaine expresses in his fable of the Woodcutter:

Quel plaisir a-t-il eu depuis qu’il est au monde?

En est-il un plus pauvre en la machine ronde?19

We might also recall that in La Fontaine’s fable, the woodcutter proclaims his misery and longs for final release from life’s cares. When Death appears before him, however, his instinctive grasp upon life—no matter how miserable his existence—reasserts itself and he asks Death to help him shoulder his burden, so that he may after all continue to trudge through life.

The same fatalism had been expressed in The Gleaners two years before. In contrast to the bustling harvesters in the background of the painting, the three women are condemned to gather one by one the stray gleanings left behind. The weariness and the implacable fatality of their task are embodied in the repeated rhythms of bodies and arms, great curves forced down toward the earth. Castagnary was one of the few who understood Millet’s fatalistic outlook. He wrote of The Gleaners:

This canvas, which recalls frightening miseries, is not at all, like some paintings by Courbet, a political harangue or a social thesis: it is a very beautiful and very simple work of art, free of all declaiming. The motif is poignant, it is true, but treated so honestly, it raises itself above partisan passions and reproduces [. . .] one of these pages of true and grand nature that Homer and Virgil found.20

More declamatory than The Gleaners is The Man with a Hoe (Mrs. H. P. Russell), exhibited in the Salon of 1863. Here one cannot escape the impact of the brutalized image, for every aspect of his form carries to an extreme point the artist’s sense of helplessness and despair at man’s fate. Millet’s instinctive pessimism, his fatalism and his humanitarian feelings are cast over the figure like so many leaden shrouds, burdening him with the weight of ages and denying him any spark of rebelliousness. It is no accident that in the thorns and thistles one sees in Man with a Hoe, especially in the left foreground, there Is expressed both the traditional and the personal association of barrenness, toil, pain and the passion of Christ.

Millet’s wish to show the eternity of man’s burdensome life was grafted onto a period of profound social upheaval, and therefore his pessimism and his fatalism became vehicles for others’ social protest, if not his own. Man with a Hoe was accepted in 1863 as the outcry of common man against society. It was a transposition which we can now see was inevitable. Millet made a somber outcry against fate, but his contemporaries claimed that fate was nothing other than an instrument of social oppression. In this equation, Millet’s fatalism, the intermediate quality (but to him the ultimate one), was finally suppressed so that Man with a Hoe and other peasant figures became ipso facto images of social protest.

How could it have been otherwise, with all the attention being paid to the depopulation of the countryside, with all the urgency given to social reform? The burdened peasant was already the hero of social literature, and Millet could not escape this context. For example, in 1856 the same Eugène Bonnemère who has already been mentioned wrote such passages as this one, which could stand as a caption for Man with a Hoe of seven years later:

You can multiply schools, you can make education free, but you will have accomplished nothing, nothing at all, as long as you have not changed the conditions of existence of this man who, brutalized and bent over his furrow every hour of every day of his whole life, arrives at the end of his career as ignorant and about as miserable as at the beginning.21

One might think that Millet could not have escaped the association of his pictures with such social commentary, regardless of the particular mood his work projected. It is tempting to believe that any image of a peasant would bear the same message. This is not so, however. Charles Jacque, Constant Troyon,, Jules Breton and many others were widely admired and honored by conservatives de-spike their peasant subjects. The reason is found in the realm of qualities hard to articulate, but instantly understood with the actual pictures at hand. Troyon and Jacque represented the peasant in relatively small scale, peacefully engaged in the happy tasks of rural life. Breton did show the peasant in large scale, but with an idealized, pretty face and with a mood of gentle devotion to nature’s bounty (a mood that is really the artist’s, not the peasants’). Unlike theirs, Millet’s figures, at least those so far mentioned, make a neutral reaction impossible. Instead of confirming the middle-class view that life on the farm is a happy round of healthy tasks, Millet brought the laboring peasant directly into the observer’s presence, with a sense of the grueling, wearing tasks he performs. He usually showed the peasant in a struggle with obdurate nature, which only reluctantly yields to dogged effort, a dialectic in which nature stands for fate, and therefore one which embodied Millet’s sense of the meaning of life: man versus fate. This dialectic, we have already noted, became transformed in the minds of contemporaries to that of man versus the social order.

THE HISTORY OF MILLET’S radical presence in the public eye is essentially limited to the thirteen years between The Sower of 1850 and The Man with a Hoe of 1863. The latter was about the last of his paintings to cause a public stir. His New-Born Calf (Art Institute of Chicago) shown in the Salon of 1864 still caused some unreconstructed conservatives to gnash their teeth (at what they regarded an overly ceremonial presentation), but thereafter he exhibited less often, and in any case turned increasingly to landscape. A discussion of Millet’s peasant naturalism should not end here, however. The historian must concern himself with qualities of art which help explain social phenomena, qualities which are not merely those of obvious subject matter. Millet’s importance to history is not that he provided us with a pictorial commentary on rural life, but that he created a memorable art. His work was a powerful force because it drew together past art and present aspiration, melted in the crucible of a rare talent. We shall find that far from being a simple transcription of what lay around him, Millet’s rural naturalism was a compound of literary predilection, nostalgia for the past, an instinctive humanitarianism and a profound pessimism. It was a compound also of religious and mythological themes transposed into secular actuality.

In the first decade of his life as a professional artist, from 1837 to the Revolution, Millet, although the son of Norman farmers, was not at all a painter of peasants. He devoted himself at first to portraits and to the female nude. About fifty to sixty oil portraits survive from these early years, and they are so beautiful—although known only to connoisseurs—that they would have sufficed to guarantee Millet a reputation. The same is true of his paintings and drawings of nudes, especially those of the period 1845-48. They make him one of the principal masters of the female figure in the 19th century.

When he first broached rural themes about 1845, it was in the rather voguish taste of Diaz and the petits romantiques who carried on the 18th-century tradition. His Nymphs Resting in the Forest (Phoenix Art Museum) is typical of his work as city-dweller in the middle 1840’s, a lovely rendering of a delightful fiction that would not seem readily to lead to the rugged naturalism of just four or five years later. By 1847 he had developed a stronger, more sculptural and heroic style, and his subjects came closer to the mood then building towards 1848: homeless mothers with children, despairing fisherwomen waiting on stormy rocks for absent husbands.

Coinciding with the Revolution of 1848, and owing much to its liberating spirit, came Millet’s fully fledged naturalism. With funds provided by a commission given him by the Republican government (another link to the events of 1848), Millet left Paris in late 1849 for Barbizon, where he remained the rest of his life in an atavistic return to the land. Like the heroes of so many Bildungs-romanen in the 19th century, he had grown up on the land, and had then become a city-dweller, in his personal life mirroring the transformation of Europe from an agricultural to an urban-industrial society. With the culture and outlook of a professional artist (sixteen years in Cherbourg and Paris), he found in Barbizon the actual environment toward which his subjects had been slowly groping.

Not that he began to copy, even now, the rural scenes about him. Fleeing the city meant not so much a direct plunge into contemporary peasant life as a rediscovery of the past, his own past life as a boy in Normandy, that personal past which would become equivalent to the pre-industrial past for European sensibilities. The proof of the high place that nostalgia for his youth had in these first years at Barbizon is readily found. Many of his pictures and drawings are not of Barbizon, but of distant Normandy. The Sower of 1850 throws his seed out against the steep hillsides of his native Cherbourg region, and not onto the flat land of the Brie where he actually painted the picture. It was only in the mid-1850s after several years at Barbizon that Millet habitually represented his figures against the horizontal plains of the region.

It is appropriate to insist on the degree to which rural subjects and the actual rural environment signaled for Millet an escape from the city. When he later recalled his arrival in Paris in 1837 he used terms that recur in his letters all his life, images evocative of noise, confusion, unrest and fear.

And then Paris—black, muddy, smoky Paris—made the most painful and discouraging impression upon me. It was on a snowy Saturday evening in January that I arrived there. The light of the street lamps was almost extinguished by the fog. The immense crowd of horses and carriages crossing and pushing each other, the narrow streets, the air and smell of Paris seemed to choke my head and heart, and almost terrified me. I was seized with an uncontrollable fit of sobbing [. . .].22

In clear relief from such impressions, his surroundings at Barbizon brought him an exhilarated peace of mind.

If you could but see how beautiful the forest is! I run there whenever I can, at the end of the day when my work is done, and each time I come back crushed. The calm and grandeur are tremendous, so much so, that at times I find myself really frightened.23

The sense of his rediscovery of a primeval past, untainted by the city, is found in any number of paintings. Going to Work of 1850–51 (variants in Glasgow and Cincinnati) has some of the feeling of Masaccio’s famous Expulsion. It is pre-industrial and even pre-urban man, “primitive” man in short, going out to the fields to earn his salvation. “It is an old truth,” wrote Castagnary, “that eclogues and idylls have nearly always been the reflection of social agitation. Jostled by the tumult of events, poets and dreamers seek refuge in the peace of the countryside, in the contemplation of calm and serene nature.”24

To Millet the “peace of the countryside” was associated with the favored reading of his youth, the Bible and Virgil, from both of which he constantly cited in his conversations and letters. Going to Work is perhaps an unconscious evocation of biblical times, but the monumental Grafting a Tree (formerly Rockefeller family) of 1855 seems a deliberate realization of Virgil’s well-known “In-sere Daphnis, piros; carpent tua pome nepotes” (Graft thy pear tree, Daphnis; posterity shall pluck thy fruit). In a Barbizon setting, a young peasant grafts a tree while his wife (her form derived from Roman sculpture) stands nearby, holding their child, the result of the human graft. What appears to be an acceptably naturalistic scene is a programmatic pictorial statement, drawing attention to the continuation in the present of the Virgilian past.

To the extent that the style of “naturalism” would seem to require a presentation of present-day reality, Millet’s devotion to age-old unchanged life strikes us now as paradoxical. Yet the very heart of the present argument is that the rural past became the perfect expression of contemporary urban sensibilities. We are sure, in any event, that Millet’s and Courbet’s peasants were accepted in their day as fully avant-garde, and we are also sure that Naturalist critics did not require or even prefer the new urban-industrial imagery as expressions of modernity. Castagnary, in so many ways Millet’s counterpart among the critics, saw that rural subjects embodied present aspirations, with the virtue of being aloof from the most obvious contemporary polemics and therefore endowed with greater permanence. The past enters here into a curious dialogue with the present, and country with the city. This is why it is not surprising to learn that Castagnary can proclaim the modernity of age-old rural life and simultaneously denounce ostensibly modern subjects. In his Salon of 1857 he attacks the radical painter Jeanron, friend of Louis Blanc and illustrator of his writings, for destroying his concept of landscape by inserting an electric telegraph:

“The placing of the electric telegraph in the rocks of Cap Gris-Nez” [by Jeanron] is a firm and vigorous landscape, which deserves only one reproach, but a capital one: why this electric telegraph? What does it signify, I don’t mean in this painting, but in any painting? What is there in common between this brass wire, this utilitarian industrial product, and landscape, which is the seeking and expression of beauty in nature? It is nonsense.25

Millet himself edited out all references to modern instruments. He had a particular predilection for the most old-fashioned peasant tools: the hoe-like bêche, the wheeled wooden plow and the hand-held distaff. The one modern farm in Barbizon, within sight of his house, appears prominently in only one major painting The Gleaners, where it forms the background. It is significant that this farm, modern for its large size and use of teams of laborers, is the foil for the timeless labor of the gleaners in the foreground: past versus present again. Millet strove hard to retain in his pictures the very forms of agricultural life which were being rendered useless by the industrial revolution. One of his most common subjects is the spinner, of which he made many oils and innumerable drawings and pastels. The spinner was one of the chief victims of the industrial revolution, and the development of modern textile methods, one of its central agents. Eugene Bonnemère wrote in 1856:

It is rigorously true to say that the most skillful spinner does not earn 10 centimes a day: she earns nothing. The city has taken from the country this precious resource: it is toward the city that the peasant turns his face, in order to follow with his regrets this richness which has forever flown, in order to contemplate these powerful machines which have broken under the first turn of their wheels the distaffs of all the peasants.26

To preserve such old-fashioned institutions as the spinner, in face of the industrial revolution, was therefore Millet’s self-appointed task. Such subjects could nevertheless incorporate contemporary attitudes for several reasons. First, as always in art, it was a question of feelings, and these did not require textile machinery for their expression. Next, although increasingly anachronistic, spinning and the other rural occupations were active, and embraced the mood and the morality of labor, so important to the middle class in the 19th century. Third, the peasant was that contemporary figure, the common man, in whose name so much social progress was sought. Fourth, the peasant gave Millet and other artists the opportunity of translating religious and mythological themes, somewhat in disgrace among progressive circles, into acceptably secular terms. This last requires further comment.

It was the fashion later, after Millet’s death, to comment on the depth of his religious feeling, and he was presented to posterity as a kind of lay saint. However, in the generation of 1848, conventional religious subjects were largely discarded by major artists in France. Millet, Courbet, Corot, Rousseau, and Daubigny painted very few religious pictures and, by the 1860s, Manet’s two pictures of Christ are among the rare religious subjects in the markedly secular generation then forming. After 1848, Millet had actually painted only one religious picture of great fame, The Angelus (Louvre) and only one other, The Parents of Tobit Awaiting his Return of 1860 (Nelson-Atkins Gallery, Kansas City), can be called a major composition.

Mythological subjects also fell into relative disgrace among advanced artists after 1848, largely because of an ostensible inappropriateness to contemporary reality, and also because of their association with discredited academic circles: In the mid-century generation, Corot alone continued to give overt classical themes any importance and Millet’s only significant venture here was the cycle of decorations he painted in 1864 for the Hôtel Thomas in Paris.

It was nonetheless difficult for the post-1848 generation to renounce overnight the centuries-old saturation in religious and mythological subjects. Between the Romantics and the Impressionists, they stood as a generation of transition who secularized old themes. In this process, Millet had a major role. Grafting a Tree has been pointed to already as a covert homage to Virgil, and Going to Work, as a contemporary expulsion from the garden of Eden. As it happens, the majority of Millet’s paintings can be viewed as transpositions of religious and mythological themes. Ruth and Boaz, begun in Paris on the eve of the Revolution, was subsequently completed as The Harvesters (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and so exhibited in 1853, a typical example of what should be called the “secular shift.” Couples shown going to work in the fields, the wife and child astride a donkey led by the husband, are restatements of the flight into Egypt. Young girls learning to spin or sew recall the common medieval theme of the Virgin’s education; a peasant pointing the way to lost travelers echoes the pilgrims of Emmaus; a mother seated with her swaddled child held between her knees is a peasant Madonna and Child. More generally, the labors of field and farm Milletso often represented are the very ones which from medieval times had represented the months of. the year, the four seasons and the hours of the day, and his shepherds come from the Eclogues and Georgics, no longer labelled Daphnis as in the 1840s, but just as clearly Virgilian.

In transposing and secularizing classical and biblical themes for his age, Millet also transformed the art of the past. When looking at his paintings, one is perhaps inclined to accept them as naturalistic images and not think, of their collateral function, which was to filter past art in the light of contemporary sensibilities and pass it on to following generations, properly enriched. For Van Gogh, Pissarro and many artists later in the century, Millet’s art was a vital source in itself, but it was also a lens which focused on certain aspects of earlier art. As E. H. Gombrich has so admirably shown,27 there is no such thing as merely “copying” natural form, and when he forged his naturalistic style, Millet went back to those arts which nourished both his subjects and his style. Without this absorption of earlier arts, peasant genre would not have had such wide currency in the 19th century, for it would not have had this deeply sensed cultural substructure, it would not have contained these associations—both conscious and unconscious—which surround a form and give it meaning.

Millet incorporated in his paintings and drawings the vital currents which emanated from the great repositories of peasant subjects. It has already been noted that he drank deeply from the literary reservoirs of peasant life: Virgil, the Bible, La Fontaine. He also admired What was considered in his day “gothic” art, from anonymous wooden sculptures, which he collected, to Quattrocento Italian painting and sixteenth-century art in the North, which he also collected in the form of engravings and a few oils. A number of his drawings and paintings of single figures who are carding wool, carrying faggots, mending baskets and the like have the very gestures and compacted forms of medieval sculpture. His several compositions of a young family going to work in the fields seem to be rather directly derived from the composition of the flight into Egypt found perhaps first in Dürer’s engraving, but at about the same time in the school of Patinir (Raleigh, North Carolina) and the Venetian school (Carpaccio or Bellini, National Gallery, Washington). Even more to the point is Dutch art, which so thoroughly penetrated Millet’s style in the 1850s that one should speak of a “Dutch period.” Countless oils, drawings and pastels of humble interiors showing women sewing, sweeping, spinning or feeding children bring to mind Dutch genre of the 17th century (Maes, de Hooch, Netscher) and their French heirs of the 18th (Chardin, Lépicié).

The artist who looms largest in Millet’s work from the 1850s onward is Brueghel the Elder, the 16th-century master of village and rural genre. Millet owned several oils attributed to him, but the evidence in his pictures and drawings hardly needs this confirmation. His large pastel of The Reaper (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a direct descendant of the same figure in Brueghel’s engraving Summer, and the powerful and handsome Meridian (Philadelphia Museum of Art), another pastel of the mid-1860s, stems from the reclining figures in the Flemish master’s Land of Cocaigne (Munich). Gnarled and sinewy old men, especially those in Death and the Woodcutter and The Parents of Tobit, echo the protagonists of Blind Leading the Blind, while the litter bearers of The New-Born Calf recall the soup bearers of the famous Peasant Wedding.

To the extent that Millet and his contemporaries found in the peasant a contact with the stable past, that is, a feeling of permanence and continuity in the face of the great upheavals taking place, then the representation of peasants in past art was particularly appealing. In other words, style rejoins social history, and we must accept as one cultural phenomenon the rise of peasant subjects in contemporary literature and painting, the heightened interest in peasant art of the past, the alliance of both in the realm of style, and the underlying relationship with the living peasants of France, the objects of passionate social concern as victims of the massive displacements of the urban-industrial revolution.

IN THE QUARTER-CENTURY FOLLOWING Millet’s death in 1875, peasant subjects enjoyed a widespread popularity never before equalled. Nostalgia for the pre-industrial past, which Millet had sensed with dignity and heroism, became adulterated and sentimentalized. His own work, by now forming part of the past, was subjected to a curious process which drained away its initial meaning and superimposed over it Victorian associations of prettiness, rusticity and picture-book morality. Collectors vied with one another in acquiring works by Millet, Josef Israëls or Rosa Bonheur, at prices equal to those for eminent old masters. It became commonplace for railroad magnates and industrial leaders to surround themselves with paintings of peasants and rural scenery. The leading exemplar is James Staats-Forbes who filled his apartments in the upper reaches of Euston Station in London with several dozens of Millets, Israëlses and Corots.

If such collections were not sufficient proof of the role peasant subjects played as expressions of industrial sensibilities, we would not be at a loss for other forms of corroborating evidence. The period 1875–1914 was the heyday of books and articles on peasant art, particularly on Barbizon art. It is hard to estimate the relative place occupied by such writings compared with other subjects, but it was clearly one of the most prominent. Of all titles ever published on rural genre and its masters, down to the present day, about three-quarters come from that period. In the same years, the Arts and Crafts movement had its rise. Its anti-machine, anti-urban ethic was suitably clothed in peasant imagery, and numerous schools and colonies devoted to the handicrafts were established in the countryside (often, if memory serves correctly, subsidized by the wives of wealthy industrialists). At the same time, second- and third-generation Barbizon art became immensely popular throughout Europe and the Americas, and every country developed its own native school devoted to rural genre. Most young artists studying in the last decades of the century passed through an apprenticeship to peasant subjects, become the lingua franca of art schools, and in some countries—one thinks of Segantini and Northern Italy—the most progressive movements were devoted to them.

Among major painters active in France in the last quarter of the century, several gave peasant themes an important place, including Pissarro, Van Gogh and Gauguin. However, the nature and the meaning of such themes were no longer the same, and considerable caution must be used in their study. The sense of permanence and continuity with the past, which Millet and Corot had felt, was hard for the next generation to sustain in face of the growing evidence of wholesale changes in modern society. It had been possible for the older artists to suspend their knowledge of the urban-industrial colossus which was dislocating the countryside, and to indulge in the fiction that portions of unsullied rural nature represented a meaningful form of life that might somehow endure. (Their awareness of the fiction involved shows in the veil of nostalgia which Corot cast over his works, and the despairing seriousness Millet gave his.) In the 1860s and 1870s the same pressures which had led to this seeking of permanence and stability were heightened until artists were pushed beyond the underlying fiction into a devotion to impermanence, mobility and the hedonistic moment of present time. They often turned to the rapidly expanding suburbs, that intermediate zone between city and country whose relatively open spaces and ready access permitted an enormous growth of swimming, boating and picnicking, those essential escapes for city-dwellers which were so beautifully celebrated by Renoir. In Impressionism, the social realism of the mid-century was replaced by suburban realism.

This did not mean that the artists were immune to the dialogue between city and country. In the evolution of Claude Monet’s landscape, the progressive abandoning of urban and suburban environments meant the release of his feelings in front of untrammeled nature, the inner necessity to isolate himself from the city in order to cultivate an increasingly private dialectic with nature and vision. Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) made his feelings more explicit than Monet. He wrote veritable diatribes against the machine and industrial society, prompted by his having been a victim of technological unemployment. When he was only seventeen, he had lost his position as a master porcelain painter because new industrial techniques had supplanted handicraft methods.

Machinism, division of labor, have transformed the worker into a simple robot and have killed the joy of working. In the factory, man, sadly tied to the machine, which demands nothing of his brain, accomplishes a monotonous task of which he feels only the fatigue.

The suppression of intelligent work in the manual professions has had a repercussion on the plastic arts. It is to the desire to escape machinism that we owe. without doubt, the abnormal increase in the number of painters and sculptors [. . .].28

Renoir did not invest these feelings in pictures of contemporary peasant life, however, but in images of an ideal world of nymphs, flowering fields and undulating hillsides that overlap with only a small part of Millet’s oeuvre: those moments of Virgilian charm and beauty in his less ambitious pictures.

It was Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) alone among the Impressionists who gave the peasant a central role. Older than the others, and of a more conservative temperament as an artist, he carried to the end of the century more of the characteristics of Barbizon art. His landscapes are predominantly of rural villages and fields (most of his paintings of Paris and Rouen date from the end of his life), and his pictures of the human figure are with few exceptions devoted to peasants and villagers. Unlike the other Impressionists in another regard, Pissarro was a political radical and adherent of Pierre Kropotkin, the chief theoretician of the Anarchist-Communist movement.29 He contributed money and drawings to the cause, and was on intimate terms with party leaders. The Anarchist-Communist credo of the end of the century strikes us now as rather idealistic and anachronistic, even within its own generation, and Pissarro’s peasant subjects require some comment in this light.

When Pissarro gave his composition of a plowman at work as the cover of Kropotkin’s brochure Modern Times, he provided an ideal pictorial symbol for Anarchist-Communism and for his art. We see not just a plowman, but one using the old-fashioned wheel plow for, like Millet, Pissarro preferred the unchanging ways of the countryside. The incarnation of “modern times” in an archaic plowman did not strike him as an anachronism, because it incorporated his ideas of health, honest labor and dignity which he set against the pollution and degraded labor of the city. In Kropotkin’s theories, industrial techniques were welcome to the extent they would permit rural-based communes to use labor-saving devices, and retain a proximity to the land. (We often find in Pissarro’s landscapes, especially in the 1870s, small factories serenely smoking along verdant riverbanks, the very image of the kind of modernity to which he was drawn.) Society, Kropotkin held, was to be decentralized and village-oriented, because in large cities, the workers could only become prisoners of oppressive economic and institutional patterns which could not be reformed. This was very different from orthodox Communism which saw in these patterns the necessary last step before the assumption of working class power.

The essential romanticism in Pissarro’s view, and its actual disparity with an increasingly urbanized society, shows in the nature of his peasants. Despite his proximity to Millet, from whom he frequently borrowed, he does not endow his figures with a fully believable capacity for the work they are engaged in. A curious kind of wooden lassitude characterizes them, as though they were primarily artists’ models, performing their actions under instructions. Coming from the 20th century, we are deprived of a naturalistic vision, and are not immediately struck by this anomaly, but when Pissarro is viewed alongside Millet and others of the earlier period, it is one of the striking differences. There is nothing of the pejorative in this, of course, because quality in art does not require believability of action, but attention must be drawn to it as a phenomenon typical of the late 19th century. Even Pissarro, living close to the land and convinced of the merits of his subjects, was unable to accept peasant life as coequal with reality.

Van Gogh (1853–90) is the other major artist on whom Millet had a profound impact. He was more than twenty years younger than Pissarro, but had a rather similar orientation because of his early and lifelong devotion to artists and writers of the mid-century: Daumier, Millet, Delacroix, Monticelli and Michelet among them. His political and social views coincided with Pissarro’s on many grounds, and the peasant entered prominently into his work for many of the same reasons. The greater intensity which marks his painting should not be attributed solely to his personal makeup, but also to his Protestant origins. Unlike Pissarro,who had an essentially secular formation tinged by Jewish culture, Van Gogh was raised in that kind of Northern Protestant environment which consists of pairs of opposites in great tension: social work versus theological abstraction, individual works versus disciplined communal action, private agony versus inhibition and repression. We might call Pissarro’s orientation secular-political, and Van Gogh’s, religious-social, both traditions embracing a profound humanitarianism and a preoccupation with the peasant as victim of social change and as exemplar of the biblical laborer.

Van Gogh’s early drawings and paintings of peasant life grew directly out of the then contemporary style in Holland, where the mid-century impulsion toward rural subjects had flown into the tradition of genre painting which had continued strongly from the 17th century. Both the peasant and the worker coexist in his paintings of the early 1880s, as they did in the Borinage district where he tried to adapt himself to a social-religious mission. Since the factory worker was so often a displaced villager, the two were not so separated in those areas where the industrial revolution erupted in the middle of cultivated fields. In a large urban center like Paris, it might have required some effort to see the relation between city and country, but not here.

When Vincent came to Paris in 1886 it seemed natural that he devote himself to scenes of the city, especially of the sites and the society of the artists among whom he moved. Peasant subjects were left behind and did we not know better, we might have thought that his evolution would parallel that of Georges Seurat (1859–91) or any number of artists coming to maturity in the same decade. Seurat, another disciple of Millet for a time, had concentrated on peasants and country landscapes in the early 1880s in his remarkable oil paintings (in his drawings, the city and its humble citizens like vendors and ragpickers were conspicuous so that he, like Van Gogh, incorporated both city and country in his work). However, upon increased contact with Impressionism, Seurat turned to the suburbs for his subjects, and after 1883 there are hardly any peasant motifs in his work. The balance of his short life was spent on paintings and drawings of city parks and entertainments, alternating with summer pictures of Channel seaports. In retrospect, therefore, Seurat’s peasant compositions seem to share in the obligatory apprenticeship of most young painters to the current studio practice, a youthful phase that is passed by when expanded contact with the modern city introduces rival stimuli and hence a new concept of what is “modern.”

Stimulated by the Impressionists while in Paris Van Gogh also abandoned peasant subjects, but only for a time. His return to the countryside in 1888—for Arles was a small town that gave him easy access to adjacent fields and orchards—responded to a deep need to renew that interlocked set of realities which constituted one final reality for him: peasant and village surroundings, their images transformed in art, his concern for the role the artist would have in a society he saw buffeted and sundered by cataclysmic changes. In his writings as in his paintings, he reminds us of the literal materialization of his ideas in the claylike pigments he used, that raw matter he handled with a peasant clumsiness and which he opposed to the refined city-bred techniques of other artists “à la Baudelaire.” That is, the clay with which he molded his images of peasants and villagers and which he accused contemporary Paris artists of not appreciating, became for him a parallel to the clay from which God “this great artist” had molded the human form. It was also a parallel to the direct technique of earlier artists he so admired: Hals, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Millet, Daumier and Monticelli, and in general to the immediacy and tangibility of expression which Pissarro had meant when he claimed for himself and Cézanne the qualities of the “savage” and the “primitive.” For Van Gogh, this synthesis could only be realized in an environment which recalled his youth, his religious mission and the unspoiled preindustrial past.

It is no wonder that in his last years Van Gogh turned again toward Millet and copied many of his works, for Arles, St. Rémy and ultimately Auvers are all his Barbizon. But forty years had passed since Millet had quit Paris for the forest village, forty years in which was developed so much of the industrial belt around Paris which Van Gogh had painted, so much of the industrialization of the Lowlands, which he had painted earlier, and had left behind. The fiction which Millet had been able to maintain, with the rumble of the city barely heard in the distance, was no longer possible for Van Gogh. Millet had already written:

Art is not a picnic. It is a combat, a set of gears which grinds one up . . . [sic] I am not a philosopher, I do not want to suppress pain, nor find a formula which would render me stoical and indifferent. Pain is perhaps that which makes an artist express himself most forcibly.30

How much stronger was the pain in Van Gogh, when the wheels of industrial change were all the nearer, all the more present to his feelings as he tried to reconcile the elements of his despair by placing his canvas in front of rural society and nature.

For Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), the dialectic of city and country, of modern life and the untouched past, was worked out on a broader scale. His Barbizon, at first, was Brittany. More remote than Barbizon, which by the 1880s was a world-famous site, Pont-Aven had welcomed artists since the 1860s. Brittany had long been of special interest because of its retention of some Celtic characteristics, its distinctive architecture and costumes, the whole more archaizing and “medieval” than Millet’s village had been in mid-century. Very much the cynic and the artful contriver, Gauguin seemed to look upon the Breton peasant and his farm as a series of pictorial motifs, but we are not fooled. He had a deep need for these images of the “primitive” and the “savage,” words he often used in this context. Brittany, before the South Seas, meant Gauguin’s search for identity, for the lost paradise of pre-industrial man.

Feeling little of the direct self-identity with the peasant that Pissarro had, Gauguin went much further toward treating his subject as mere motif, so that from Millet to Pissarro to Gauguin there is a progressive decline in believable action, a slackening of an acceptable fiction of reality. The rural villager and the farm worker remain counter-images of the urban-industrial world, but now with an awareness, even an exploitation, of the fundamental unreality involved. In his zincograph of The Joys of Brittany Gauguin recapitulated a common Millet theme, but he gave his farm women the heads of Egyptians, and he removed their pitchforks from their hands, suppressing the tools but leaving the gestures. His figures enter upon a kind of ceremonial incantation which predicts much of his art in Oceania.

When Gauguin left Europe for Tahiti, it was in order to find the opposite of modern urban society. It is fair to state the equation that Oceania was to Gauguin as Barbizon was to Millet. The intervening years had required a heightening of the sublimated dialogue of city versus country, but the mechanism was essentially the same. A South Seas couple striding along, like the figures of Millet’s Going to Work, are really Adam and Eve condemned to earn their salvation; an Oceanic mother and child, like Millet’s peasant group, are the Madonna and Child; nude women bathing in wooded streams, figures chopping wood, watering horses, or gathering fruit are in the work of both painters descended from the eclogues and idylls of classical literature.

Both Millet and Gauguin proclaimed the superiority of their rustic Eves over sophisticated ladies of Paris, both had an instinctive preference for wooden shoes, clumsy homemade tools, rough stone and wood. These qualities, properly called “primitive” in the sense of first, or preceding, are those which industrial man has felt the need to seek, in release from the mechanistic, the smooth, the well-regulated, the machine-made. They are admired instinctively, for their own sake, and also because they call to mind non-industrial societies and their freedom from mechanization. Gauguin carried this canon outside Europe, all the while preserving a Western viewpoint, and his art was the most important precedent for the next step in Western sensibilities. This was the adoption of African sculpture (and eventually of African music, the music par excellence of industrial man in the 20th century) which began among advanced artists in Paris at the time of Gauguin’s and Pissarro’s deaths. What had happened since the middle of the 19th century was an increasing polarization of the colloquy between city and country. Millet left Paris for nearby Barbizon; Van Gogh left his homeland and eventually the whole industrial North for Arles; Gauguin left Europe entirely. Finally, sculpture from black Africa, partly because it was misunderstood and thought to be the result of spontaneous outbursts of emotion, entered modern art as the ultimate counter-image of industrial man.

AFRICAN SCULPTURE IS THE HEIR to the profoundest aspirations of Western artists which had been manifested in the last half of the 19th century in images of rural peasantry. There is another heritage as well, probably secondary in absolute significance of expression but, in effect, more obvious. This is the retention of images of the peasant in painting throughout the world, Western and non-Western, usually as the visual concomitant of the beginnings of rapid industrialization, or the anticipation of it. Since Marx’s day, it has become apparent that advanced industrial societies are not the ones which lend themselves to drastic revolution; it is instead peasant societies (Russia, China, Egypt, Cuba . . .) which, thirsty for industrialization, hope to leap over intermediate stages to fully-fledged mechanized cultures. Almost invariably, such revolutions or their anticipations are characterized by a marked devotion to images of the peasantry. This is partly because their labor provides the plus-value which permits rapid industrialization and, as in Western Europe and the United States in the 19th century, the dignity of labor becomes central to the governing ethic. Thus in Russia, the existing tradition of peasant realism was expanded and officially sponsored from the early 1920s onward and later, in Mao’s China and Nasser’s Egypt, an utterly Western concept of the human figure replaced traditional imagery, leading to the strange appearance of peasants and workers steeped in European style striding across posters which proclaim the virtues of indigenous ideals.

In Western countries or those already under the economic tutelage of industrial nations, anticipations of revolutionary change and periods of pronounced social reform have also been characterized by the prominence of pictures of rural and village life. In Mexico, this century’s greatest art of social concern, headed by Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros, gave the peasant a leading role. The advanced artistic movements of many Latin American countries incorporated a concern for the Indigenistas, villagers who had partly escaped the westernization process and who therefore went back to Millet’s Barbizon peasants as elements of artistic sensibility. Too often it is assumed that such subjects are but expressions of “leftist” sympathy (witness Renato Guttuso in post-war Italy), but this is not so. The American Scene movement in the 1930s, including Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Curry and the critic Thomas Craven, was essentially a very conservative impulsion (Wood’s famous American Gothic, incidentally, is an American version of Millet’s Peasant Family, now in the National Museum of Wales).

IN A GENERATION SHAKEN by the peasant masses of China, Vietnam and Africa, it has seemed appropriate to investigate the peasant as an image of the urban-industrial revolution. The force of this tradition must be traced to the second half of the 19th century in France, when the artist, one of whose roles it is to sense the critical aspirations of his fellow men before they can articulate them, found in his construction of rural subjects the vessel into which so many of his longings could be poured. It represented release and freedom from the regularity of mechanized life, from the impurity of city slums, from the degradation of factory labor. It permitted the expression by proxy of feelings hard to articulate directly, feelings of an extraordinary range, from nostalgia for that past being assaulted and torn asunder by industrialization, to admiration for the nobility of the man whose gestures force a pattern upon nature. The peasant called forth a host of associations with past literature and art, permitting the transposition into secular terms of religious and mythological themes that gained new force in the process.

The power of the peasant image to modern man is shown in the fact that Vincent Van Gogh is the most universally known painter on all continents of the earth. To that extent his art is a contemporary phenomenon, entering into the construction of the popular image of the world, which is an agonized one.

Dr. Robert L. Herbert is Professor of Art History at Yale.



1. This paper had its origin, in rather different form in a lecture delivered at Reed Collette on April 23, 1968, as part of a series on “The City in Nineteenth Century America, England and France.” I am grateful to my colleagues associated with that series, particularly to Charles Rhyne and John Rothney, and for help in obtaining photographs, also to Jacques Foucart, Linda Nochlin Pommer and Vagn Poulsen. The most valuable article for this study has been Stanley Meltzoff’s “The Revival of the LeNains,” Art Bulletin, 24, September, 1942, pp. 259–86. Courbet’s art and social views have been studied with great care, most recently by T. J. Clark, “A bourgeois dance of Death: Max Buchon on Courbet,” Burlington Magazine, 111, April 1969, pp. 208–12; May 1969, pp. 286–90, and Linda Nochlin, “Gustave Courbet’s Meeting: A Portrait of the Artist as a Wandering Jew,” Art Bulletin, 49, September 1967, pp. 209–22. Together with Meyer Schapiro’s “Courbet and Popular Imagery: An Essay in Realism and Naïvete,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 4, 1940–41, pp. 164–91, they provide the most interesting modern analyses of rural imagery in the 19th century, and have dispensed me from the need of dealing with Courbet in the present essay. David Pinkney’s Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton, 1958) documents the growth of Paris at mid-century. The best general discussion of art and the industrial revolution is by Pierre Francastel, Art et technique aux XIXe et XXe siècles (Paris, 1956), and Paul Brandt’s two volumes, Schaflende Arbeit and bildende Kunst (Leipzig, 1927) offer a generous repertoire of work motifs in art, from Egypt to the early 20th century. I have dealt with the rural image in three essays, which the present article hopes to correct and extend: “Millet Revisited,” Burlington Magazine, 104, July 1962, pp. 294–305; September 1962, pp. 377–86; Barbizon Revisited (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, et al., 1962), and “Millet Reconsidered,” Museum Studies, 1, 1966, pp. 29–65.

2. Andre Joubin ed., Journal de Eugène Delacroix (Paris, 1950), 3 vols., vol. 2, pp. 51–53, of May 16, 1853.

3. Among the best books of the period, offering demographic charts and intelligent analyses, are these. Eugene Bonnemere, Histoire des Paysans depuis la fin du moyen age jusqu’à nos lours 1200–1850 (Paris, 1856), 2 vols.; Jules Brame, De l’Emigration des campagnes (Paris, 1859); Léonce de Lavergne, Economie rurale de la France depuis 1789 (Paris, 1860), S. C. Valny, Etudes sur la dépopulation des campagnes (Auch, 1862).

4. Brame, op cit., pp. 93f; the facts summarized in this discussion are found in the several books listed above, but Brame’s is perhaps the most convenient to use.

5. Bonnemère, Histoire des Paysans, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 399.

6. In his Salon of that year. It is one of the rare references to the Le Nain not included in Meltzoff’s article cited above. “Nous avons vu des tableaux de Millet qui rappellent à la lois Decamps et Diaz, un peu les Espagnols, et beaucoup les Lenain, ces grands et naïfs artists), du dix-septième siècle, auxquels la postérité n’a pas encore accordé leur place légitime parmi les meilleurs peintres de l’école française.”

7. See Emile Bouvier, La bataille Réaliste 1844–1857 (Paris, 1913).

8. Chants et Chansons (Paris, 1851–54), 4 vols., vol. 1, “Préface”, p. 6; the publisher’s prospectus claimed that Dupont’s songs would inspire peasant and worker, and Baudelaire’s introduction attached them to the mood of 1848. Dupont’s preface is an overt attack against Louis Napoleon, and ends with a veritable peroration in favor of entering the new “industrial movement” of society with the republican collaboration of “work, science and love, the reign of truth.”

9. Philosophie du Salon de 1857, in Salons 1857–1870 (Paris, 1892), 2 vols., vol. 1, p. 7.

10. Subsequently destroyed; two later variants exist, both in the Louvre.

11. The essential biography for Millet remains Etienne Moreau-Nélaton’s Millet raconté par lui-même (Paris, 1921) 3 vols.

12. The version exhibited is now in the Provident Trust Co., Philadelphia; the contemporary variant is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

13. T. Delard in Charivari, 7 January 1851.

14. F. Sabatier-Ungher, “Salon de 1851,” La Démocracie Pacifique. This and the preceding citation form part of an anthology of contemporary criticism of Millet that was gathered together for Quincy Adams Shaw, and which is now with the Shaw papers in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

15. In La Presse, cited by Moreau-Nélaton, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 42.

16. Marius Chaumelin, Salon Marseillais de 1859 (Marseille, 1860), p. 57.

17. Olivier Merson, Exposition de 1861, la peinture en France (Paris, 1861), p. 221.

18. L’Art et les artistes contemporaines au Salon de 1859 (Paris, 1859), p. 118.

19. Letter of February 1, 1851, cited by Moreau-Nélaton, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 91.

20. Castagnary, op. cit., p. 24.

21. Bonnemère, Histoire des paysans, vol. 2, pp. 4181.

22. From an undated autobiography that Millet wrote later, cited by Alfred Sensier, La Vie et l’oeuvre de J. F. Millet (Paris, 1881), p. 44.

23. Letter to Sensier of January 25, 1851, cited by Moreau-Nélaton, ibid., p. 89.

24. Castagnary, op. cit., p. 17.

25. Ibid., p. 59.

26. Histoire des paysans, vol. 2, p. 371.

27. Art and Illusion (Bollingen, 1959).

28. In a letter to Henri Mottez serving as introduction to Victor Mottez’ translation of Cennino Cennini (Paris, 1911), p. 21.

29. Benedict Nicolson, “The Anarchism of Camille Pissarro”, The Arts, 2, 1947, pp. 43–51; R. L. and E. W. Herbert, “Artists and Anarchism”, Burlington Magazine, 102, November 1960, pp. 473–82, and December 1960, pp. 517–22.

30. Sensier, La Vie et l’oeuvre de J. F. Millet, op. cit., pp. 1011.