To the peasant farmer every month of the year brings its own labors. From seed time to harvest there is a constant succession of different tasks, and hardly is the harvest gathered in before it is time to prepare again for planting. Before ploughing can be begun the fields must first be cleared of stubble and weeds. Now in Millet's village of Barbizon, this clearing of the fields was done, in his day, by means of an implement called in French a houe. Although we translate the word as hoe, the tool is quite unlike the American article of that name. It looks a little like a carpenter's adze, though much larger and heavier, the blade being as broad as that of a shovel. The handle is short and the implement is very clumsy and fatiguing to use. Even the stoutest peasant finds the work wearisome.

The man in our picture has paused for a moment's rest in this toilsome labor, and leans panting on his hoe. In the heat of his toil he has thrown off his hat and blouse, which now lie together on the ground behind him. His damp hair is matted together on his forehead, his brawny chest is exposed by the open shirt, his horny hands are clasped over the hoe handle. Some distant object catches his eye. It may be a farm wagon moving across the plain, or perhaps a bird flying through the clear air. To follow the course of such an object a moment is a welcome change from the monotonous rise and fall of the hoe.

It is a rough and uneven field in which the laborer works, rising here and there in small hillocks, and thickly overgrown with brambles and coarse tufts of herbage. When these weeds are loosened from the soil, they are raked in little heaps and burned. In the field just back of this is a circle of these bonfires, sending up their columns of smoke towards the sky. A young woman is busy raking together the piles. In the distance she looks like a priestess of ancient times presiding at some mystic rites of fire worship. Far beyond, a shapely tree is outlined against the horizon.

From a carbon print by Braun, Clément & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE MAN WITH THE HOE

To study this picture profitably, we must consider separately the subject and the artistic qualities. These two elements in a work of art are often confused, but are in reality quite distinct. Very unpleasant subjects have sometimes been employed in pictures of great artistic merit, and again beautiful subjects have sometimes been treated very indifferently. When great art is united with a great subject, we have ideal perfection; but poor art and a poor subject together are intolerable. Now some people think only of the subject when they look at a picture, and others, more critical, look only at the qualities of art it contains. The best way of all is to try to understand something of both.

In the first glance at this picture we do not find the subject very attractive. The laborer is awkward, he is stupid looking, and he is very weary. If we are to look at laborers, we like to see them graceful, intelligent, and active like the Sower. As a redeeming quality, the Man with the Hoe has a certain patient dignity which commands our respect, but with all that, we do not call it a pleasant subject.

But look a moment at the strong, noble outlines of the drawing and see how finely modelled is the figure. So carefully did Millet study this work that he first modelled the figure in clay that he might give it more vitality in the painting. This Man with the Hoe seems indeed not a painted figure, but a real living, breathing human being, whom we can touch and find of solid flesh and blood.

We must note, too, how grandly the figure is thrown out against the sky and the plain. There is something to observe, also, in the proportions of the man to the background. The broad pyramid made by the bending figure and the hoe needs plenty of space at each side to set it off, hence the oblong shape of the picture. These, and other artistic qualities not so easily observed and understood, all give the picture "a place among the greater artistic conceptions of all time."

The Man with the Hoe has probably caused more discussion than any other of Millet's paintings. From the very first those who care only for the subject of a picture have condemned it, while the critics have praised its artistic qualities. Many have thought that Millet made the subject as unpleasant as possible in order to show the degrading effects of work. The same theory was suggested when the Sower and the Gleaners appeared. The painter himself was much troubled by these misunderstandings. "I have never dreamed of being a pleader in any cause," he said. He simply painted life as he saw it, and had no thought of teaching strange doctrines against labor. Indeed, no man ever felt more deeply than he the dignity of labor.

When everything which could be said for or against the picture had been exhausted on the other side of the Atlantic, the picture was brought to this country and finally to the State of California. Here the discussion began all over again. There were those who were so impressed by the unpleasant character of the subject that they could not find words strong enough to express their horror. The Man with the Hoe was called "a monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched," a "dread" and "terrible" shape, "a thing that grieves not and that never hopes," a "brother to the ox," and many other things which would have surprised and grieved Millet.

Of course, any one to whom the pathos of the subject itself appeals so strongly can have little thought for the artistic qualities of the picture. So Edwin Markham, the writer of the poem from which these expressions are quoted, lets the subject lead him on into an impassioned protest against "the degradation of labor,—the oppression of man by man,"—all of which has nothing to do with the picture.

Millet was not one to care at all for what he called "pretty" subjects, as we have already seen in studying the picture of the Milkmaid. "He felt that only by giving to his figures the expression and character which belonged to their condition could he obey the laws of beauty in art, for he knew that a work of art is beautiful only when it is homogeneous."[1]

This was the theory which he put into practice in the Man with the Hoe, and one who understands well both his theories and his art sums up the great painting in these words: "The noble proportions of the figure alone would give this work a place among the greater artistic conceptions of all time, while the severe and simple pathos of this moment of respite in the interminable earth struggle, invests it with a sublimity which belongs to eternal things alone." [2]


Pierre Millet in the Century.


Henry Naegely.