This September, The Argus delves into the past, present, and future of agriculture. Unlike the single cover stories designated in previous issues, each section has a cover story sharing the common theme of agriculture. The Culture Section, through art, investigates a key aspect of agrarian society: gleaning. The T&C Section covers the pros and cons of potatoes, a crucial crop to the establishment of modern-day civilization. The G&N Section deals with the impact the insect industry might have in our future ─ a peak at the future of agriculture. The Argus presents this with hope that our readers recognize the gravity AGRICULTURE holds in our lives.
There is a famous painting on a wrapper for sesame crackers named “Harvest.” If you look at the TV commercial for the cracker, a man and a woman are enjoying the famous painting while eating the cracker in an art gallery. As they eat, three women suddenly pop out of the painting and pick up the sesame seeds that fall on the floor.
In the mid-19th century, two French painters painted women who gleaned crop remnants in the countryside. Jean-Francois Millet’s [Les glaneuses (The Gleaners)] and Jules Breton’s [Le Rappel des glaneuses (Calling in the Gleaners)] are commonly about “gleaning,” but the ways in which they are expressed were very different. By comparing these two works, The Argus looks into the two different views of the French agrarian society at the time.
Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875)
Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th-century French painter, is known as the “peasant painter” for his many paintings about hard-working farmers. He was born the son of a Normandie farmer and grew up observing the lives of farmers from an early age. Based on his childhood experiences, he painted images of farming people. His representative works include [Les glaneuses (The Gleaners)], [L’Angelus (The Angelus)], and [Le semeur (The Sower)].
Jules Adolphe Aime Louis Breton (1827-1906)
Jules Adolphe Aime Louis Breton, a 19th-century French painter, developed his work on the themes of rural landscapes and peasant life in his hometown of Courrieres. He originally painted landscapes in Paris, but he returned to his hometown due to health problems. Born as the son of a landowner, he depicted the lives of farmers based on the countryside he saw as a child. His representative works include [Le Rappel des glaneuses (Calling in the Gleaners)], [Le Chant de l’alouette (The Song of the Lark)], and [A travers champs (The End of the Working Day)].
The privilege of the poorest, Gleaning
Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest (Wikipedia). Gleaning was considered the only privilege that the poorest rural people could enjoy in France in the 19th century. It was a statutory right for the poor farmers to pick up wheat ears that had fallen into the fields after harvest, and the landlords could not stop it. Earning the ears shows the reality of the day. At that time, the tenants were poor enough to have to eat the grain that had fallen in other people’s fields because they did not have their own fields. The amount of grain left over was unreasonably insufficient in comparison to the number of hungry people. Therefore, the poor peasants could not afford to straighten their backs to collect even one more grain than others. 24 hours of gleaning, and all that resulted was just a loaf of wheat.
Gleaning also appears in the Old Testament, [Book of Ruth]. Ruth, a stranger, sought food to serve her mother-in-law alone, and reached the field of Boaz. The landlord, Boaz, who knew about Ruth’s situation, allows her to glean ears from her fields. From the Old Testament’s verse, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.” It can be seen that the fallen ears belong to the poor, the elderly, and those without family.
Les glaneuses: women picking up fallen ears
The painting by Jean-Francois Millet in 1857 depicts the scenery of Chailly, France. In the solemn atmosphere of the sunset, the three women are silently doing their own work. At first glance, they may be seen as being idyllic and at peace. But the women, in muddy clothes, have their hands tanned and appear rugged from the hard work; they were peasants who had to pick up the grain that had fallen because they had nothing to eat. Two of the women pick up the ears, not raising their heads as if they were going to go off into the ground. The woman on the far left is putting her arms behind her back, apparently because of a backache. The woman standing on her right seems to rest as she unfolds her sore waist for a while, but with her eyes, she continues to look at the ground to find the ears.
In a closer look at the women’s backs, the background illustrates the realities of rural areas where desperate poverty and overflowing affluence coexist. On the right side, the rider on the horse who seems like a landowner is pointing at something. Following his fingertips, farmers gather together. They are busy finishing the harvest in the middle of the field. The collected grains are piled high up along the hill, and a few people carry some of them in their carriages.
This stark contrast is made between the tiredness of gleaning and the joy of harvest by visually and distinctively distinguishing between the women in the painting’s foreground and the farmers in the background. “Millet is fiercely accusing the gap of truth between the rich and poor by dividing the poorest, who feed on a handful of grains, and the upper classes who are showing off their wealth,” said Lee Myung-ok, director of the Savina Museum of Art.
Le Rappel des glaneuses: women with both hands full of ears
The painting, produced by Jules Breton in 1859, recreates the day-to-day life of the peasants in Courrieres. In this picture, the women leave the field after picking up the ears. On the upper left, there is a crescent moon with a wide field extending underneath it. Around the young women dressed in rags, children and old women are walking with full armloads of ears. Some are picking up ears continuously as they move. On the corner, a man dressed in refined clothes with knife looks at them. He may be the landowner’s land keeper.
[Le Rappel des glaneuses] is the same theme as [Les glaneuses], but comes to the public with a different feeling. Breton’s painting faithfully follows the fashion of 19th century art. In the 19th century, paintings depicting rural life became very popular. Most of these were instructive paintings that glorified farmers or praised the virtues of labor. Poor people in paintings that were popular at the time did not lose their dignity despite the harshness of the environment. In [Le Rappel des glaneuses], the women who gather ears and return home as the moon rises show a dignified step as if coming out of the picture without a trace of hard work.
Of course, there is a lot of criticism for romanticizing rural farmers’ lives too ideally. The bourgeoisie of the city thought of the countryside as being filled with rich fields and sincere farmers, a view that was completely different from reality. These rural communities they had hoped for were expressed in Jules Breton’s [Le Rappel des glaneuses]. The magnificent rural landscape, where trees are gathered and the golden sunset of the afternoon follows, reminds us of the rich countryside. The women’s hands full of ears illustrate the richness and vitality of the earth instead of a life of distress. “Jules Breton borrows the form of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts pursuing the beauty of art. He does not evoke true reality through this, but rather concisely expresses a partial view of reality and gives the work a sense of daydreaming,” stated professor Choi Byun-jin of HUFS.
Mixed reactions to both works
France was at a time of great confusion when Millet’s [Les glaneuses] and Jules Breton’s [Le Rappel des glaneuses] were submitted to the Paris Salon, the most prestigious art exhibition in France. It was a period of bloodthirsty events that began in the late 1700s with the Great Revolution, the Napoleon War, the restoration of the monarchy, and the rule of the Paris Commune. In 1848, farmers were also given suffrage and thus, Napoleon III, who vowed to create a country for farmers, was elected emperor. But as emperor, he failed to keep his promise to farmers and focused on industrialization. The countryside became increasingly impoverished as the rural population flowed into the city. In the countryside at that time, owners with large capital began to hire low-paying workers to manage large-scale cultivation. As a result, farmers became poorer and poorer and eventually lost their lands.
The public, who saw the two works under these circumstances, showed conflicting reactions. Both works were on display at the Paris Salon, a leisure space for the city’s elite. The audience, the bourgeoisie, gave Breton’s [Le Rappel des glaneuses] a favorable review, and Millet’s [Les glaneuses] harsh criticism. Breton’s painting, which hides social inequalities and shows only a rich bunch of ears, was a success in Salon. In fact, in 1859, Empress Eugenie purchased the painting. Several years later, in 1862, Emperor Napoleon donated the painting to the Luxembourg Museum of Art, an art museum for artists who created works favored by the royal family.
On the other hand, Millet’s [Les glaneuses] was accused of being a dangerous painting that exaggerated the gap between the rich and poor and secretly supported socialist ideas. Director Lee Myung-ok explained, “The French government at the time was experiencing a period of extreme political turmoil in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1848. During the political upheaval, the mere portrayal of the daily lives of the poor was threatening. Particularly, the painting that revealed the difference between rich and poor could be interpreted as a political protest expressing discontent with government policies.” She added that “Millet’s paintings, which seemed to expose the miserable reality of farmers, could be a trigger to attempt to overthrow the regime in connection with social discontent groups.”
“It ain’t what it looks like.” The two works remind the public of this passage. In 19th century France, the bourgeoisie of the city thought of Breton’s countryside. However, the reality was Millet’s farming village. In those days of poverty and hunger, farmers who had to endure the winter had to wander around in other people’s paddy fields and pick up ears all day.
Now, due to mechanization, the ears do not fall off even after the fall harvest. Only the grains fall and become food for birds. Now is the time to think about what kind of profit our society has for the weak. Even if our ears are falling off, would it still be our reality today that we would not let the poor pick them up?
By Kim Min-ji
Associate Editor of Culture Section