Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Naturalism: Landscape vs People

Jean-François Millet 1814–1875
Peasants Bringing Home a Calf Born in the Fields, 1864
Oil on canvas
81.1 x 100 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago

The Naturalists were based mainly in the French town of Barbizon. Like Gustave Courbet and other Realists, they tried to depict the world around them without the overt idealization or sentimentality of the Romantics.

While his Barbizon colleagues focused on landscape, Millet documented the daily toil of peasants.

He said:

"To tell the truth, the peasant subjects suit my temperament best; for I must confess, even if you think me a socialist, that the human side of art is what touches me most. and if I could only do what I like,--or, at least, attempt it,--I should do nothing that was not an impression from nature, either in landscape or figures. The jolly side never shows itself to me. I don’t know where it is. I have never seen it…

You are sitting under a tree, enjoying all the comfort and quiet of which you are capable; you see come from a narrow path a poor creature loaded with fagots. The unexpected and always surprising way in which this figure strikes you, instantly remind you of the common and melancholy lot of humanity—weariness. It is always like the impression of La Fontaine’s “Wood-cutter,” in the fable: “What pleasure has he had since the day of his birth? Who so poor as he in the whole wide earth?”

Sometimes, in places where the land is sterile, you see figures hoeing and digging. From time to time one raises himself and straightens his back as they call it, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Thou shalt eat thy bread in the sweat of thy brow.” Is this the happy, jovial work some people would have us believe in? But, nevertheless, to me it is true humanity and great poetry!"

Together his paintings and drawings are an anthropological study of mid-to-late 19th century rural people of a world long gone from Western Europe.

Throughout Europe, the Naturalists and their followers preserved the bent backs of agrarian society just as they were beginning to be replaced by the steam engine of the Industrial Revolution.