Monday, April 07, 2008


Jean-François Millet (4 October 1814 - 20 January 1875)
The Angelus 1857 - 1859
Oil on canvas
21 3/4 x 26 inches (55.25 x 66.04 cm)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The painting was first commissioned by a wealthy American, Thomas G. Appleton, and completed during the summer of 1857. The initial title of the work, was Prayer for the Potato Crop. When Appleton did not pay and take possession in 1859, Millet made some changes. He added a steeple and changed the title of the work, to The Angelus.

It depicts a man and a woman standing alone in a in a huge empty plain. They are farmers. He holds his cap reverently as he stands with bowed head. She is in a white cap and long blue apron over her dress and clasps her hands. Their faces are left in shadow. They pause in prayer for the Angelus. It is the evening Angelus. It is a moment of respite, a short break before the toil re-starts.

At the woman's feet is a basket of potatoes, and at her far side rests a wheelbarrow full of empty sacks. At the side of the man is a pitchfork spiked upright in the ground. One of these sacks is not yet quite full, and the work has been prolonged after sunset.

The man and the woman are reciting the Angelus, a prayer which commemorates the Annunciation made to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

In a letter to a friend, Siméon Luce dated 16th March 1865, Millet wrote:

"Je l'ai fait en pensant comment, en travaillant autrefois dans les champs, ma grand-mère ne manquait pas en entendant sonner la cloche, de nous faire arrêter notre besogne pour dire l'Angélus "pour ces pauvres morts" bien pieusement et le chapeau à la main. "

"The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed very religiously and with cap in hand".

When his agent, Sensier, first saw the picture on Millet's easel, the painter turned to him and asked, "Well, what do you think of it?"

"It is the Angelus," replied Sensier. "Yes," Millet said with satisfaction. "Can you hear the bells?"

Millet shows the pair in harmony with their peaceful and unchanging rural existence.

It was only after the painting left his hands did the painting "take off". There was an unbelievable rush of patriotic fervour when the Louvre tried to buy it in 1889.

Eventually it was acquired for 800000 gold francs, a huge sum for the time.

It became an obsessional subject for Salvador Dali. He published a book (The Tragic Story of the Angelus of Millet) solely devoted to the picture. Dali thought that there was something hidden in the canvas due to the presence of a feeling of anguish. He also believed that the subject was not only the reverent spirit of the prayer but in addition, there was a repression of sexual type.

In 1963, an x-ray revealed that Millet had painted between the farmers, the coffin of a boy. This part was painted over by the artist.

The painting was lacerated by a madman in 1932 and became a world-famous icon in the 20th century.

The Angelus is one of the few of Millet's works which have changed with time. The colour has grown dark and the canvas has cracked somewhat, owing to the use of bitumen in the painting.

Fame and recognition were slow in coming to Millet.

In the context of the political instability of 19th century France, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the Revolution of 1848 were not remote events in his life. As a result of the Revolution(s), wars, and political turbulence, contemporary critics viewed all his paintings suspiciously, looking for a covert political agenda.

It did not help that Millet came from the countryside and was the son of poor, landed farmers. It also did not help that he loved wearing red and took pride in showing off his worker’s sabots. But what really stirred the critics was his trademark: paintings of the rural poor as stooped, exhausted, and honourable. On the political right, peasants were perceived as violent, dangerous sources of social upheaval. On the political left, peasants were seen as a vanguard in the wave of liberation.

In 1863, one Paris art critic wrote of Millet :

"For M. Millet, art is slavish copying of nature. He lights his lantern and goes looking for cretins. . .imagine a monster with no skull, the eye extinguished by an idiot's squint, straddling in the middle of a field like a scarecrow. No spark of intelligence humanizes this resting brute. Has he been working or murdering?"
Millet, however, repeatedly disclaimed any political ideology. He simply loved to portray silence, twilight, and solitary shepherds guarding their flocks. But at this historical watershed, it was extraordinarily difficult to paint workers in the fields without kindling suspicious images of revolution.

Millet wrote to a friend:

“I see the halos of dandelions, and the sun, also, which spreads out beyond the world its glory in the clouds. But I see as well, in the plain, the steaming horses at work, and in a rocky place a man, all worn out, whose . . . [sighing] has been heard since morning, and who tries to straighten himself a moment and breathe. The drama is surrounded by beauty.”

Millet was an artist, not a propagandist. He had depth of feeling. He lacked egotism. "I will swear to you," he wrote to a friend in 1851, "at the risk of seeming even more of a socialist, that it is the human side that touches me most . . . and it is never the joyous side that shows itself to me: I don't know where it is. I have never seen it."

By the time Millet had died in 1875, he had greatly influenced Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat, blue-period Picasso and especially Vincent Van Gogh.

The institution of the Angelus is by some ascribed to Pope Urban II, (1042 – July 29, 1099), by some to Pope John XXII. (1249 – December 4, 1334).


"41. What we have to say about the Angelus is meant to be only a simple but earnest exhortation to continue its traditional recitation wherever and whenever possible. The Angelus does not need to be revised, because of its simple structure, its biblical character, its historical origin which links it to the prayer for peace and safety, and its quasi-liturgical rhythm which sanctifies different moments during the day, and because it reminds us of the Paschal Mystery, in which recalling the Incarnation of the Son of God we pray that we may be led "through his passion and cross to the glory of his resurrection."[109]

These factors ensure that the Angelus despite the passing of centuries retains an unaltered value and an intact freshness. It is true that certain customs traditionally linked with the recitation of the Angelus have disappeared or can continue only with difficulty in modern life. But these are marginal elements.

The value of contemplation on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, of the greeting to the Virgin, and of recourse to her merciful intercession remains unchanged.

And despite the changed conditions of the times, for the majority of people there remain unaltered the characteristic periods of the day -- morning, noon and evening -- which mark the periods of their activity and constitute an invitation to pause in prayer. "