The Sower by Jean-Francoise Millet
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The Sower is one of Jean-Francois Millet’s most famous paintings, an early masterpiece and a part of an iconic trio that includes The Gleaners and The Angelus.
Millet at first studied painting of portraits at Cherbourg but soon he specialized in another type of paintings. He founded the Barbizon School where the painting of peasant landscapes was a common motif. At the time it was fashionable among the upper-middle class to have these idealized landscapes and characters on the walls, a sort of naïve, politically correct outlook on the farmer’s life.
Millet, who was born in a farming community and knew the hard life of French peasants, decided to give the upper-middle-class something different – a realistic portrait of the suffering, the hardship and the determination of peasant workers and laborers.
The Sower 1865-66
He did that in the mid-1800s’, at the time of the Second French Republic that was created through the work of laborers, workers who greatly outnumbered the upper class. The idea of a workers revolution made the upper classes nervous and uneasy.
And then came Millet who in 1850 submitted The Sower to the Salon de Paris, a very conservative art exhibition, causing a huge scandal. Instead of meek, idealistic peasant set in a beautiful, tranquil landscape, Millet offered the public a strong, muscular young man, looming over the landscape like some sort of a giant, dominating the canvas. He holds seeds in his right hand but it is clenched so hard it looks like he is going to punch someone with a fist. He is a threat to the Parisian bourgeoisie. No wonder the public was shocked. Instead of timid, pleasant, pastel-colored pastoral, they got an intimidating, giant worker towering them.
The Sower is one of Millet’s most famous themes, one he came back to over and over again in the next 20 years (1850-1870). It was a subject he knew well, as he lived in Barbizon and knew the hard life of peasants there. For Millet, the realistic depiction of hard, backbreaking peasant life was a must.
The Sower 1850
Millet’s Sower is a peasant, dressed in simple, practical and rough clothes. He is muscular and resembles Michelangelo’s figures. He has a bag of steeds across his chests. As he works in big strides, throwing seed randomly on the ground, a flock of crows ominously circles behind him on the left, while on the right, in the distance, a man behind a plow prepares the soil for planting.
The Sower dominates the canvas both by size and color. His muscularity and height are accentuated by his long strides, shadows falling over him, the point of view of the viewer who was looking at his feet and then up towards his face, and the small and hunched figure in the background. The primary color of his clothes makes a stark contrast against dark earthy tones of a field. The entire canvas is wrapped in shadows, with light coming from the right of the picture, sunshine piercing through the clouds, announcing the beginning of the working day.
The young man’s eyes are hidden by his hat and his clothes are dirty, but the expression on his face is determined. He is trying to outrun the gathering darkness symbolized by the crows eating up the seeds and undoing his efforts. He will prevail, you can see it on his face.
Millet’s work and his treatments of the theme although mostly frowned upon in his day will have a huge influence on younger artists, especially Vincent Van Gogh who admired him greatly.
Walt Whitman, the American poet, saw in The Sower a prototype of Creative Man, sowing the seeds of a new age.