In the picture called The Potato Planters we are reminded at once of the peasants we have already seen in Going to Work. We see here married people a few years older than the young people of the other picture working together in the fields.

It may be that this is their own little plot of ground, for they work with a certain air of proprietorship. They look prosperous, too, and are somewhat better dressed than common laborers. It is the highest ambition of the French peasant to own a bit of land. He will make any sacrifice to get it, and possessing it, is well content. He labors with constant industry to make it yield well.

The field here is at quite a distance from the village where the workers live. We can see the little group of houses on the horizon. In France the agricultural classes do not build their dwelling-houses on their farms, but live instead in village communities, with the farms in the outlying districts. The custom has many advantages. The families may help one another in various ways both by joining forces and exchanging services. They may also share in common the use of church, school, and post office. This French farming system has been adopted in Canada, while in our own country we follow the English custom of building isolated farmhouses.

In working season the French farmer must go daily to his labor at a distance. The people in our picture are fortunate enough to own a donkey which is their burden-bearer between house and field. The strong little creature can carry a heavy load properly disposed in pannier baskets. The panniers are made very deep and wide, but rather flat, so as to fit the sides of the donkey. With one of these hanging on each side of the saddle, the weight of the burden is so well distributed that it is easily borne.

The donkey of our picture has been relieved of his panniers, and now rests in the shade of some apple-trees. One of the baskets is in the mean time put to a novel use. Made soft and warm with a heavy cloak, it forms a nice cradle for the baby. The babies in French peasant families are often left at home with the grandmother, while the mother goes out to field work. The painter Millet himself was in childhood the special charge of his grandmother, while his mother labored on the farm. The people of our picture have another and, as it seems, a much pleasanter plan, in going to the field as a family party.

From a carbon print by Braun, Clément & Co John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE POTATO PLANTERS

The day is well advanced and the work goes steadily on. It is potato planting, and the potato crop is of great importance to country people, second perhaps to the wheat, as it supplies food to both man and beast. The commoner varieties, as the large white, are raised for cattle, and the finer and sweeter kinds, the red and the yellow, are kept for the table.

The laborer and his wife move along the field, facing each other on opposite sides of the row they are planting. The man turns the sod with his hoe, a short-handled tool which long practice has taught him to use skilfully. The wife carries the potato seed in her apron, and as her husband lifts each spadeful of earth, she throws the seed into the hole thus made. He holds the hoe suspended a moment while the seed drops in, and then replaces the earth over it. The two work in perfect unison, each following the other's motion with mechanical regularity, as they move down the field together.

The two who work so well together in the field are sure to work well together in the home. The man has the serious, capable look of a provident husband. The woman looks like a good housewife. That shapely hand throwing the seed so deftly into the ground is well adapted to domestic tasks.

We may easily identify our picture as a familiar scene in Millet's Barbizon surroundings. We are told that "upon all sides of Barbizon, save one, the plain stretches almost literally as far as the eye can reach," and presents "a generally level and open surface." "There are no isolated farmhouses, and no stone walls, fences, or hedges, except immediately around the villages; and were it not all under cultivation, the plain might be taken for a vast common."[1]

It is evident, then, that we here see the plain of Barbizon and true Barbizon peasants of Millet's day. The villagers of the painter's acquaintance were on the whole a prosperous class, nearly all owning their houses and a few acres of ground. The big apple-tree under which the donkey rests is just such an one as grew in Millet's own little garden.

Fruit trees were his peculiar delight. He knew all their ways, and "all their special twists and turnings;" how the leaves of the apple-tree are bunched together on their twigs, and how the roots spread under ground. "Any artist," he used to say, "can go to the East and paint a palm-tree, but very few can paint an apple-tree."


From Edward Wheelwright's Recollections of Jean François Millet, in Atlantic Monthly, September, 1876.