Fanfare for the common man

“Man with a Hoe” (1860-1862), by Jean-François Millet. Oil on canvas. Getty Museum

Salt of the earth

“Reckoning with Millet’s ‘Man with a Hoe’ 1863-1900,” edited by Scott Allan (Getty Publications, 123 pp, $26.95)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Scott Allan doesn’t waste any time rolling up his sleeves: “For a time around the turn of the twentieth century, ‘Man with a Hoe’ would be the most renowned European painting in California.” This monograph, mercifully not long, shadows the picture’s controversial reception in Paris, its redemption, and a later tug of war about human nature and whether it can be deciphered in the shape, size, and slope of one’s forehead.

Jean-François Millet was born near Gréville-Hague, France, in 1814, and died in Barbizon in 1875. He’s considered one of the founders of the Barbizon school of painting, along with Théodore Rousseau, Charles-François Daubigny, Camille Corot and others.

“Man with a Hoe” was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1985, and as a footnote to Allan’s comment above it has lost much of its former prestige. And thus, perhaps, we have the “reckoning,” after which I hope they’ll tuck it back into bed (I like Millet as much as I like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which is to say not much, although it’s easy to see the appeal of such paintings as “The Sower” and “The Gleaners”).

The book has been published to complement a small exhibition, through Dec. 10, and bearing the same title as this slim catalog. So just what is it about “Man with a Hoe” that merits all the attention it has received since it was first shown in 1863?

Painted between 1860 and 1862, the work depicts a solitary laborer briefly at rest. He’s standing alone in what could be an immense field, with not much on it but thistles and thorns. He forms a thin triangle or pyramid in the center of the canvas. He has the face of a boxer who’s gone the full 15, and if his hoe wasn’t there to support him there’s every possibility that he might simply tumble over. He may look like a “brute” (as was generally bandied about), but this is also the man who is laboring to put vegetables on your dining room table.

When the work was initially displayed, much of the general public and certain critics found the subject ugly and repulsive (artists who could have come to its rescue, the Ashcan school of Bellows and Sloan, etc, were still decades away). They compared his looks to those of a condemned serial killer whose mug was still in the news.

“Portrait of Jean-François Millet” (1856-1858), by Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon). Salted paper print from a glass negative. Getty Museum

In his youth, however, Millet had worked the land on his family’s farm in Normandy, an experience he could always point to when questions about his pictures arose. Simon Kelly writes: “In basing such compositions on the Barbizon peasantry, Millet alluded to wider social changes, particularly the marginalization and declining incomes of rural smallholders as a result of the rise of large, and increasingly mechanized, farms.”

This has a modern echo in Lowes and Home Depot gulping down mom and pop hardware stores, and I think one can draw comparisons to the writings of Dickens in England, Zola and Huysmans in France, and later on Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair in America.

But “Man with a Hoe” was also uniquely posed so that it could be appropriated by labor advocates and social reformers on the one hand, and yet on the other perceived as confirming the status quo; in other words, are laborers rebellious or are they content?

To some extent Millet dug himself out of this hole of controversy by his other pictures, such as “Shepherdess with her Flock,” a pastoral and religiously sentimental painting whose sunset piety rather resembles the mood of Caspar David Friedrich’s “A Walk at Dusk,” also in the Getty collection. We can add to this, as mentioned above, “The Sower” and “The Gleaners,” and also “The Angelus,” all of these with the autumn leaf colors we associate with the Barbizon school. “The Angelus” was a very popular picture, reprints of which were all but tailor-made for hanging in a bourgeois household, not unlike the work of Norman Rockwell.

In short, “Man with a Hoe” became subsumed under Millet’s “rural cycle of life” series, and thus, so to speak, was now defanged. Millet was now “canonized” sort of like James Ensor in Belgium, someone reviled at first by the larger public but later esteemed. Just think of ‘60s rockers like The Who or The Rolling Stones and ‘90s rappers like Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre., people who over time seem to have become respected elders.

Despite the picture’s now-broader acceptance, not much fuss was made when it was sold to Ethel and William H. Crocker of San Francisco, partly because “The Angelus” was swimming back to France from the U.S. and “The Gleaners” was headed to the Louvre.

Some years later, in 1899, a teacher and poet named Edwin Markham published a poem in San Francisco’s “Sunday Examiner Magazine” in which he interpreted “Man with a Hoe” “as an indictment of the brutality of modern agricultural systems,” writes John Ott, “which degraded the individual farmworker as a mere ‘brother to the ox.’” Markham’s poem set off some new rockets of debate mostly because, as Ott points out, “Markham increasingly pegged the canvas to current events,” and what this means is that Millet’s painting from nearly four decades earlier was dragged from one era and context and dropped into another.

The larger discussion that now swirled around “The Man with a Hoe” argued over whether “the hoe man” (as Ott labels him) was the stunted descendant of other stunted laborers or whether he was the victim of his barren environment. It was sort of a nature vs. nurture debate that also pulled in the theory of eugenics, that is, the classification of races by physiological and intellectual criteria and perceived heredity traits. Suddenly we’re caught up in passages with lots of social Darwinism being batted back and forth like shuttlecocks.

Ott writes well, but the sociological tone is a huge shift from the earlier essays, and a few of us may rightly wonder what all this has to do with Millet and his painting. Well, it is tangentially related, and yet Ott anticipates that he may be emptying the house: “Some readers may protest that critical race art history seems at best marginal to this discussion,” but he blithely plows ahead anyway.

However, it’s all part of the larger picture, the “reckoning” of the title. This small exhibition reminds me of another at the Getty that is just closing, “Giacomo Ceruti: A Compassionate Eye,” in that both shows depict the downtrodden or those living in squalor and eking out a hardscrabble existence: the urban poor for Ceruti and the rural poor for Millet.

Reckoning with Millet’s ‘Man with a Hoe’ 1863-1900 is on view through Dec. 10 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. More at getty.edu. ER

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