I am currently reading “Van Gogh – The Life” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Recently published (2011) it makes for fascinating reading and I thoroughly recommend. I haven’t yet reached Van Gogh’s late twenties when he actually started to paint (as opposed to draw – which he did from early age) but what a troubled soul he was from an early age. If we are really honest with ourselves his plight might strike a chord with many. I can’t help but feel that it wouldn’t take much to succumb to introspection and isolation as regularly as he did – if only we (I) could be as creative! Anyhow what has this all to do with Millet?
Van Gogh was hugely influenced by the Barbizon school of painters of which Millet was a founding member. The Barbizon school were part of an art movement towards realism in art, which arose in the context of the dominant Romantic movement of the time. The school was active from 1830 through 1870 and takes its name from the eponymous village south of Paris where the artists gathered. In fact Millet lived and died there.
First the meaning of the above artwork. The Angelus, which is Latin for angel, is a Christian devotion in memory of the Incarnation. The name is derived from the opening words: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ (“… the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary….”). The devotion was traditionally recited in Roman Catholic churches, convents, and monasteries three times daily. The Angelus is usually accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell, which also serves as a call to prayer. I’m not a religious person but I can imagine that to hear this bell across a sun drenched field at the end of a hard worked summer’s day must have been quite moving just as I have never failed to be moved by the evening Islamic call to prayer when I was living in the Arabian Peninsular or equally when church bells peel across the English countryside.
Back to the painting. The description in the sales catalogue, when it was put up for auction in 1899, was as follows:
The night is coming: the sun, already below the horizon, is still shining with a warm and golden light on the lower part of the sky and the vast cultivated plain that stretches away as far as the horizon.
The countryside is already radiating the mysterious quietness coming with the day’s end.
On the foreground, in a potato field that they are harvesting, two young people, a young peasant and his companion, have interrupted their work. They are standing up and out against the bright sky. The young man has taken his hat off and his pose expresses a feeling of innocent and touching respect. His is holding his beret in his hands on his chest and his head is bowed. The young girl is joining her hands up close to her face. The two of them are bending their heads; they are meditating and praying to the Creator silently. Actually the Angelus is ringing in the distance, from the steeple of the village church that can be seen on the horizon on the bright sky golden with sunset.
A deep religious feeling radiates from this famous painting that is said to be the most beautiful painting of the modern school and that is undoubtedly the masterpiece of Jean-Francois Millet.
Well that blurb seems almost superfluous. Clearly Millet meant that interpretation. Or did he………? There is more going on than meets the eye and it took the eccentric genius Salvador Dalí, who was fascinated by this work, to figure it out. Rather than seeing it as a work of spiritual peace, Dalí believed that far from innocent it held messages of repressed sexual aggression. That I’ll need to ponder on. Much more compelling however was Dalí’s belief that the two are praying over their buried child, rather than to the Angelus. He was so insistent on this that eventually an X-ray was subsequently done of the canvas, confirming Dalí’s suspicions – the painting actually contains a painted-over geometric shape strikingly similar to a coffin. In fact it seems that Millet may have had several changes of mind. The painting was originally commissioned by an American art collector who the failed to take possession. At this juncture Millet then added a steeple and changed the initial title of the work, Prayer for the Potato Crop to The Angelus.
Displayed to the public for the first time in 1865, the painting changed hands several times, increasing only modestly in value. However following the First World War there was a bidding war between French and American bidders and eventually it was sold for the then huge amount of 800,000 gold francs. Ironic since following Millet’s death his family lived in poverty. It was the disparity between the market value of the painting and the poor estate of Millet’s surviving family that was the major impetus in the devising by the French Government of the droit de suite (“right to follow”), copied in some other jurisdictions, for artists or their heirs to receive a fee on the resale of their works of art. This should be contrasted with policies such as the American first-sale doctrine, where artists do not have the right to profit from subsequent sales.
As a painting The Angelus doesn’t do a great deal for me personally. I very much prefer The Gleaners above, also in the Musée d’Orsay and completed the same year. At first sight it seems bucolic, a rural idyl. It was however controversial and received with much hostility by the French middle and upper classes when unveiled in the Salon in 1857. It depicts three peasant women gleaning a field of stray grains after the harvest as was their ancient right. The painting is famous for featuring in a sympathetic way what were then the lowest ranks of rural society. Millet conveys the message that while the lowest-class women occupy the same canvas as the abundance depicted in the background, they will never be a part of that abundance, in both the painting and in real life. This is a commentary on the lower classes’ inaccessibility to upward mobility. This was powerful stuff with France having recently emerged from the 1848 Revolution. The prosperous classes saw the painting as glorifying the lower-class worker. To them, it was a reminder that French society was built upon the labor of the working masses, and landowners linked this working class with the growing movement of Socialism.
Now to finish with both Millet and Van Gogh. While at the Saint-Paul asylum where Van Gogh admitted himself, he did more than 30 copies of works by some of his favorite artists. About twenty-one of the works were copies after, or inspired by Millet. Rather than replicate, he sought to translate the subjects and composition through his own perspective, and technique. His brother Theo, himself an art dealer (who incidentally spectacularly failed to sell any of his brother’s art) considered these some of Vincent’s best work. Here is Millet and Van Gogh’s The Sower compared;
Actually Van Gogh thoroughly explored the symbolism of sowing painting some 30 pictures depicting a sower. In his own words; “One does not expect to get from life what one has already learned it cannot give; rather, one begins to see more clearly that life is a kind of sowing time, and the harvest is not yet here.“
Ironic words indeed from this great artist who never reaped the rewards from his art during his life time.