Today it’s fairly popular to paint the common man. The beloved Kehinde Wiley has been doing this for some time now, pulling subjects off the street and treating them to neoclassical portraiture techniques usually reserved for heads of state. (Of course, Wiley did paint Barack Obama’s official portrait.) Artists like Derek Fordjour, Henry Taylor, Amy Sherald and Jordan Casteel are also in demand as they paint normal folks of all genders in the high style.
These artists all owe something to Jean-François Millet’s Man with a Hoe, the basis of a just-opened show at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles—“Reckoning with Millet’s Man with a Hoe.” Back when the work debuted at the 1863 Paris Salon, Millet’s choice of subject wasn’t exactly en vogue. In the shadow of the 1848 Revolution, the work “appalled the bourgeoisie who considered it brutish and frightening, and even compared the figure to a serial killer,” according to the show’s press materials, which also call it “the most historically significant painting in the Getty Museum’s collection of nineteenth-century European art.”
It’s also a rather good painting. There’s all this tension between the difficulty of the job and the peace of the subject’s momentary break. The worker’s pose is awkward but sturdy. The chunky land around him further conveys harshness. In the background, a woman burns weeds. The sky is hardly blue. All this comes together in his face, which is probably what the bourgeoisie found so scary. It’s blank in its exhaustion, gazing without enthusiasm at something that probably isn’t a cause for optimism, given the surroundings. His head feels like it comes from a later period of art history, like it might have been done by Picasso or Modigliani.
This head is the focus of contemporary caricatures of the work also shown in the show. One says in the caption that the “unfortunate peasant” digs “in the hope of finding the other half of his head.” Millet defended himself in a passionate letter, also on display, that professed his commonality with people like the man with the hoe and points to the Book of Genesis quote about having to work by the “sweat of your brow.” Still, his later works pulled back from such pronounced brows. The show also features Shepherdess and Her Flock from the 1864 Salon (on loan from Musée d’Orsay), which is a more beautiful take on similar themes.
But there’s a happy ending. Man with a Hoe began to gain acclaim after Millet’s death in 1875 and was featured in his first retrospective in 1887 and the Paris World’s Fair of 1889. From there, it was purchased by the collectors and railroad heirs Ethel and William H. Crocker, who had it shipped to the West Coast where it has lived ever since. The work was popular enough that the artist’s own grandson, Jean-Charles Millet, was exposed in the 1930s for selling fake studies of it. These, too, are on display. It’s a wild ride.
“Reckoning with Millet’s Man with a Hoe” is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum through December 10.