The man with the hoe
Known as a skilled draftsman and then acclaimed for his mastery over color in oil and pastels, Jean Francois Millet’s work has mesmerized audiences for decades. He is widely known for his portrayal of peasants and working men and women, creating earthly and realistic pictorial representations. As a French Realist, Millet’s famous ‘Man with a Hoe’ (Oil on canvas, 1860-1862) is a piece of work where one can review Millet’s fascination with the objective and lifelike portrayal of the subject in focus. It not only talks about the farmer it shows but paints us a picture of the political climate Millet was working in.
What is truly remarkable about a painting when one stands before it is the perception of the world through the artist’s eyes, boldly and honestly on display for all to see. At first glance, this painting shows a tall man standing with a hoe in the mud, a farmer, perhaps taking a breather while working tediously in the fields. There is smoke in the distant background, and there the grass seems greener and the land in better shape. He stands on almost rocky ground, drier barren looking with shrubs and wild plants growing around him. He is all alone and is staring ahead of him. He is dressed in rough clothes which seem haggard, worn down and almost shabby. He seems to be dirty, covered of mud and dirt, wearing sturdy large shoes that are would seemingly help him work outdoor on this tough terrain. It seems to be late evening or late afternoon, as the light that falls on him is not very harsh. He is staring into what could be a sunset, perhaps signifying the day’s work is coming to an end.
However what makes one stand and look at it a little while longer is the plethora of moods and expressions that are present in the scene. Not only is there a beautiful mix of fresh and dull colors in the scenery, just the terrain itself fluctuates between a dozen browns and greens, from being refreshing light green to a dreary rugged brown.
The most engaging and expressive experience of the painting is upon observing the man’s face. Even though his eyes are almost in the shadows and one cannot read them, his face has a range of emotions reflected on it. It seems he has a long way to go as his land is not in a very fruitful condition. His hands rest heavily on the bar of the hoe, leaning on it as if to support his entire body weight. His lips are parched, he looks thirsty and in need of refreshment. One expects to see intense weariness or hopelessness but in fact the man looks determined and strong. As his body gives away, he is exhausted with the exertion of the field work; his face tells a different story. He seems resilient and dignified, hopeful and ready to work hard once more. It feels as though when one moves away from the painting, the man will resume his work in the fields, tirelessly and fiercely. After gazing at it for a few minutes one understands that the Man with the Hoe was not painted to invite pity or to demean the worker, instead it almost glorifies this moment of his life and his routine work by freezing it on a canvas.
Centrally composed, the painting asks the viewer to look upon the farmer leading the eye to his face, his hands, his legs, and most definitely his hoe. The smoke in the background and the soft horizon create a sense of peace and balance the heavy centralized feeling of the frame. Looking for a while at the gradations of brown earth make it almost tactile, easily separating the rocky earth from the soft one. The palette is earthy and yet not monotonous as the grayish blue sky has nuances of lavender, making it an over-all wide and colorful work. The textures created by Millet’s impasto effect render the characters and their surrounding into a very lifelike form. The thick strokes leave one yearning to touch his subject or stare at it long enough that it may suddenly start to move. The technique creates emotive value, seeming to add depth to the image. It also serves to create a sense of calm and pensiveness as it connotes a long and laborious effort on the artist’s part while he observed each detail, each leaf and each rock
As realism dictated, an artist was to paint without embellishment or interpretation, the subject at hand. A perfect rendition of light and dark as it existed, a keen sense of observation and attention to detail made the most ordinary of painting subjects spring to life. A scientific understanding of vision and depth of field and a display of the optical effects that are created by light naturally brightening up the scene. This was in line with the idea of democracy in France, paying significance to the common man, everyday life and demeaning of social hierarchy. The realists believed that everyday people, events and activities were worth painting. They wanted to create an aesthetically pleasing documentation of the subject with all its humblest aspects – those that had previously been either ignored, considered insignificant or altered to suit the artist’s purpose.
Such was Millet’s artistic purpose in the ‘Man with a Hoe’ and other similar paintings and there were those who appreciated his refinement as a colorist, the uniqueness of his impasto technique and his endearing compositions. Whereas artistically the emphasis for the painter was on the translation of the real subject onto the canvas; politically it was on the choice of subject that was highlighted. In a highly volatile environment, every work of art was a story told, and its angle or composition or the moment captured by the artist was subjected to great scrutiny3.
In this light, many critics and viewers protested with unexpected fervor when Millet exhibited the ‘Man with a Hoe’ at the Salon in 1862. The French bourgeois reacted by feeling it was directed at them, a taunt on their wealth and an attempt to gain sympathy. They expressed their distaste for empowering the dirty almost over-sized farmer as it symbolized to them the ruffian, the rebel, the revolutionary. They felt Millet granted the working class and the laborer with undue attention and flattery by depicting him as a graceful courageous man, an achiever. The vast social and monitory differences across various sections of the French society had created a rift, one that could not easily accept honest expressions. Feelings of guilt, fear and suspicion were rampant among those who were well-to-do and knew little about the working class across the country. The painting reflected the romanticized ideas of the time that the Realists out rightly defied. It represented to the critics a biased idea to paint and the man in the painting would loom like a threat. When questioned, Millet refused all accusations and professed to painting along the realist philosophy – that of accurate and objective visual depiction. His love for and familiarity with fields was the reason for his choice of subject, agricultural workers being his favorite. Truly when one observes closely, there is nothing artificial about the mixture of strength and fatigue on the subject’s face, delicately captured and ingeniously observed by the artist.
It would in a less hostile environment, be viewed as a perfectly natural, and perhaps extremely regular moment in a laborer’s day. It was the aftermath of political and social upheaval that directed such strong criticism on all non-escapist and purely representational art. Robert Herbert helps us understand that as an artist of his time, Millet was justified in not only closely studying the ordinary middle or lower-middle class man, he was also expected to immortalize him through his work. Viewers in that era would have seen ‘Man with a Hoe’ as Millet’s declaration of democracy, just as we today see it as a significant contribution to the development in modern art, mirroring its relevant political environment.
As one stands before it, the man with the hoe in the picture represents the entry of the common man onto the canvas in a way the world had never seen before. It was, at that time, Millet’s tribute to every man’s ability to bear his burdens, with poise, unchanged and unabashed. The painting is the artist urging an acceptance of reality, a denial of the hypocrisy that plagued the French before the Revolution and prevailed for some time after it. The ‘Man with a Hoe’ stands as a symbol of Millet’s creative rendition in oil, his painstaking care to detail and his significance as an observer of his socio-political surrounding
Finocchio, Ross. Nineteenth-Century French Realism. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
Herber, Robert L. From Millet to Leger: Essays in Social Art History. Yale University Press. 2002.
Harden, Mark. “Jean Francois Millet” (2001) 24th May, 2010. <www.artchive.com>
 Mark Harden. “Jean Francois Millet” (2001) 24th May, 2010. www.artchive.com
 Ross Finocchio. Nineteenth-Century French Realism. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. 14-18.
3 Robert L. Herber. From Millet to Leger: Essays in Social Art History. Yale University Press. 2002. 24-29
 Robert L. Herber. From Millet to Leger: Essays in Social Art History. Yale University Press. 2002. 33-38.
 Robert L. Herber. From Millet to Leger: Essays in Social Art History. Yale University Press. 2002. 15-16