The sower | Jean-François Millet | 1850
Millet was born in 1814 in the village of Gruchy, a peasant community in Normandy, France. As a child, he studied in the local school but, with the guide of two priests, he is instructed in Latin language and in the reading of modern authors. Destiny and chance would sent young Millet to Cherburg to study painting of portraits, but our artist still hadn’t his mission clear: after became specialized in this type of paintings, his submissions to the Salon de Paris, the conservative art exhibition, were rejected.
Later on he starts to know several different painters that, under his leadership, they will found the Barbizon School. All of them had a common motif: the painting of peasants landscapes: for the city upper-middle class it was fashionable to hang in the walls these type of paintings that idealized the landscapes and its characters, giving a naïve vision of the matter.
Millet was commissioned one of this works for a state building. And here is when Millet takes a subtle decision that would activate all type of reactions: he decides to portrait the peasant life in a personal and realistic way. It is, he abandons the á la mode conformist style and paints the suffering of these workers, their solitude and their determination.
In 1850, Millet gets a financial sponsor and, in the same year, he submits The sower to the Salon: huge scandal! You may wonder what is wrong with this work o why it caused that much stir. We have the answer if we look at the context: in 1848, a worker’s revolution had taken place under the flag of “universal rights to work” that after allowed the creation of the Second French Republic. In this political scenery, the conservatives reacted negatively to The sower, because the painting focused in the real subject rather than the idealized version they were used to.
In the canvas, we see a peasant randomly sowing under the sunshine that comes from the horizon, at the right of the picture. Its location tells us that it is just dawning and that the peasant has just begun his working day. He is a young man wearing simple and practical clothing for his task. Although we cannot see his eyes, the expression of his face indicates his struggle, his sadness and, at the same time, his strong will. The earthly tone of the canvas are dark and dirty, increasing the sensibility towards the peasant’s work environment, in clear contrast with the neat worker of the city to whom The sower was presented.