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  • Jean-Francois Millet
    Oct 4, 1814 - Jan 20, 1875
  • The Sower 1850 - Jean-François Millet was a French painter and one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. Millet is noted for his scenes of peasant farmers; he can be categorized as part of the naturalism and realism movements. As a painter of melancholy scenes of peasant labor, he has been considered a social realist. Millet's paintings are noted for their power and simplicity of drawing.
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The Sower 1850
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  • The Sower 1850

  • Jean-Francois Millet
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  • 1850
    Oil on canvas
    101.6 x 82.6 cm (40 x 32 1/2 in.)
    Museum of Fine Arts, United States.

    Millet's 1850 piece "The Sower", which has come to be associated with the Social Realist movement, shows a peasant man striding through a plot of freshly tilled soil as he sows his crops. The sun shines in the top half of the painting just over the horizon to show that the peasant has risen at the crack of dawn in order to accomplish the day's work that lies ahead.

    The painting is characterized as a Social Realist work because of its focus and subject matter, and additionally due to the manner in which the work is portrayed. Millet breaks from the traditional academic route with "The Sower" and it shows in his dark and muddy earth tones. Rather than idealizing the peasant man or ignoring him entirely, Millet portrays the peasant as a stocky, well-built young man wearing simple, practical peasant clothing.

    An impasto brush stroke gives "The Sower" an aura of liberation from academic traditions. Millet balances the earthy lower portion of "The Sower" with a sunset over the horizon in the top of the painting, giving the work the simplicity of a peasant's day. The peasant portrayed has his face hidden by the front of his hat, and is presumably looking off into the distance, at the work that is left to be done in front of him.

    All of these elements could lead the viewer to the conclusion that Millet's painting is simply intended to idealize the peasant and peasant life in general. One might even call this a pastoral work, focusing on idealized life out in nature. Why then did this work create controversy when it was shown for the first time in France?

    One reason could be that Millet was associated with the more open and overtly Social Realist painter Gustave Courbet. Since Courbet also liked to portray members of the peasantry in dark and earthy tones, Millet's "The Sower" may have become associated with Courbet's works, (most notably "The Burial at Onans"), both for its subject matter, that is, the peasantry and the dark and naturalistic manners in which both artists presented their works.

    When "The Sower" is looked at in light of its Social Realist associations, a whole new realm of icons and meanings can be grasped. The Sower himself or the peasant can be viewed as a sewer of social justice, a representative of the lower classes fighting for social mobility by sowing the seeds of protest and dissent. A bright sun is rising behind the peasant man indicating that the sewer has the forces of social justice on his side. The sun rise can also be interpreted as a symbol of change, in the Social Realist sense; this would mark the change from the bourgeoisie middle class dominance of the capital industrial era in France to one of socialist enlightenment.

    Under this ideological lenses, it becomes apparent why "The Sower" created controversy in a France that was rapidly industrializing. In this France peasants or working class members of society were essential to do what needed to be done on the assembly lines, in the fields, in the textile mills, and so on. Up until this point art had focused on the upper classes, or idealized the peasant, making him a cheerful and productive member of society.

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Other paintings by Jean-Francois Millet:

The Sower 1865
The Sower 1865
The Sower
The Sower
The Spinner, Goatherd of the Auvergne (A Fiadeira)
The Spinner, Goatherd of the Auvergne (A Fiadeira)
The Stubble Burner
The Stubble Burner
Jean-Francois MilletJean-François Millet, who settled in Barbizon late in 1849, was born into a farming family. Trained with an academic painter in Paris, Millet devoted his early work to portraits and erotic nudes. He was sensitive to the changes brought about by the increasing urbanisation and industrialisation of France, and he was particularly inspired by the social issues raised by the Revolution of 1848. Thereafter he turned to scenes of peasants labouring, endowing them with heroic form adapted from the art of the past.

Unprecedented in French art, such works by Millet as The Sower were particularly controversial in the political climate of the time. Powerful and monumental, Millet's sower strides across a newly plowed field with energy and resolution, scattering the seeds for a new crop; he serves as an emblem of regeneration and of the elemental relationship between man and nature. Crude in appearance, the work provoked commentary not only on its subject matter but also on its styles and unorthodox technique. Théophile Gauteier, a famous nineteenth-century critic working for a government newspaper, noted that Millet "trowels on top of his dishcloth of a canvas, without oil or turpentine, vast masonries of coloured paint so dry that no varnish could quench its thirst". Political conservatives, who viewed the peasants as a potentially disruptive social element, attacked Millet, while liberals praised his ennoblement of rural life.

A nostalgia for an existence that was a dying phenomenon eventually made Millet's works some of the most famous images of their day. His paintings were exhibited widely, and he was revered on both sides of the Atlantic.

When Millet died in 1875, he was buried at Barbizon, next to Théodore Rousseau.