Taking a break from painting? Sometimes we need some time away from the easel to collect our energies and focus. It is useful during these moments to open up the art history book and browse through masterworks of the past. Not only is this humbling, but there is much to inspire and teach us about our work as artists. Also much to be grateful for.
The Gleaners by Millet has always been one of my favorite paintings. Considering that it was painted in 1857 it was risky to depict such common labourers when high art was meant to show the aristocracy or biblical scenes. Perhaps mythology and other parables. Millet was on the cutting edge with other artists of the time who wanted to depict everyday scenes truthfully and with feeling.
The Gleaners shows three women collecting leftover wheat from the harvest. A menial task if there ever was! My back aches just looking at at. The women are not delicate like some wispy classical painting would demand, but solid hard working types. Their hands are large and certainly hard and calloused. The day is warm and long and the vast field suggests that much work needs to be done. The labourers are also shown boldly in the foreground - almost monumental and given the respect that Millet felt they deserved. What made these women special enough to deserve such top-billing? The fact that they are anonymous gives the painting impact - they represent the hardworking commoner. This is part of Millet's concept behind the painting.
The composition is bold too. The figure on the right taking the eye into the painting then moving us into the background with perspective lines of the field until we return to the figure on the right again. We can also note the hard edge along the first figure's back catching our eye then the edges soften into the soft focus of the background greys. A harmony of warmth is carried through the colours suggesting the afternoon light at the end of a hot day.
A calm everyday event shown with feeling and masterful skill.
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