It is nightfall, and the sky is cloudy save where the last rays of the setting sun illumine a spot on the horizon. While the light lasts, the Sower still holds to his task of sowing the seed. A large sack of grain is fastened about his body and hangs at his left side, where one end of it is grasped firmly in the left hand lest any of the precious seed be spilled. Into this bag he plunges his right hand from time to time, and draws out a handful of grain which he flings into the furrow as he walks along.

The Sower's task ended, a series of strange transformations begins in the life of the seed. The winter rain softens and swells it, and when spring comes it pushes its way up in a tiny shoot. Soon the slender blades appear in close lines; by and by the stalks grow tall and strong, and the field is full of the beautiful green grain.

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

Then the hot summer sun shines with ripening power; the wheat turns a golden yellow; the ears bend under the weight of the grain, and it is time for the harvest. The reapers come with sickle and scythe, and the grain is cut, and bound into great sheaves. The thrashing follows, when the ear is shaken off the stalk, and the grain is winnowed. And now the mills take up the work, the golden wheat grains are crushed, and the fine white flour which they contain is sifted and put into bags. The flour is mixed and kneaded and baked, and at length comes forth from the oven a fragrant loaf of bread.

Now bread is a necessity of life to the people, and the supply of bread turns on the history of the seed. If the harvest is plenty, the people may eat and be happy. If it is poor, they suffer the miseries of hunger. If it fails altogether, they die of starvation. It is then a solemn moment when the seed is planted. Often the sower begins his task by tossing a handful of grain into the air in the sign of a cross, offering a prayer for a blessing on the seed. His is a grave responsibility; every handful of seed means many loaves of bread for hungry mouths. He must choose the right kind of seed for his soil, the right kind of weather for the planting, and use the grain neither too lavishly nor too sparingly.[1]

This is why the Sower in our picture takes his task so seriously. He carries in his hand the key to prosperity. He is a true king. Peasant though he is, he feels the dignity of his calling, and bears himself royally. He advances with a long swinging stride, measuring his steps rhythmically as if beating time to inaudible music. His right arm moves to and fro, swinging from the shoulder as on a pivot, and describing the arc of a circle.

The hilly field in which he works is such as the painter Millet was familiar with in his peasant childhood in Normandy. A yoke of oxen are drawing the plough in the distance, as is the custom in that province. The Sower himself is a true Norman peasant.

It is interesting to trace the outlines of the composition. There is first the long line on the Sower's right side, beginning at the shoulder and following the outer edge of the right leg to the ground. On the other side, curving to meet this, is a line which begins at the top of the head, follows the left arm and the overhanging sack, and is faintly continued by the tiny stream of seed which leaks from the corner of the bag and falls near the Sower's foot. Crossing these curves in the opposite direction are the lines of the right arm and the left leg. Thus the figure is painted in strong simple outlines such as we see in the statues by great sculptors.

The line defining the edge of the field against the sky, sloping in the direction in which the Sower walks, adds to the impression of motion which is so strongly suggested by the picture. As we look, we almost expect to see the Sower reach the foot of the slope, and stride out of sight, still flinging the grain as he goes.

There is another thing to note about the composition, and that is the perfect proportion of the single figure to the canvas which it so completely fills. This was the result of the painter's experiments. In the haste of his first inspiration he did not allow space enough to surround the Sower.[2] He then carefully traced the figure on a larger canvas and made a second picture. Afterwards the same subject was repeated in a Barbizon landscape.

Our American poet William Cullen Bryant has written a poem called "The Song of the Sower," which is very suggestive in connection with Millet's painting.[3] This is the way the song ends:—

"Brethren, the sower's task is done,
The seed is in its winter bed.
Now let the dark-brown mould be spread,
To hide it from the sun,
And leave it to the kindly care
Of the still earth and brooding air,
As when the mother, from her breast,
Lays the hushed babe apart to rest,
And shades its eyes, and waits to see
How sweet its waking smile will be.
The tempest now may smite, the sleet
All night on the drowned furrow beat,
And winds that, from the cloudy hold,
Of winter breathe the bitter cold,
Stiffen to stone the yellow mould,
Yet safe shall lie the wheat;
Till, out of heaven's unmeasured blue
Shall walk again the genial year,
To wake with warmth and nurse with dew
The germs we lay to slumber here."


For farmer's lore as to the diverse soils and diverse planting seasons, see Virgil's Eclogues, books i. and ii.


In spite of this imperfection the first Sower is a highly prized painting and is in the Quincy-Shaw Collection, Boston.


Compare also Victor Hugo's poem, often referred to in descriptions of this picture, Saison des Semailles: Le Soir.