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The Art of Jean-François Millet: The Angelus as a Case Study

« I can clearly see . . . the sun streaming through the clouds,
in all its glory, a long way off from the earth. I see just as
clearly, out there in the plain, horses steaming as they plow;
then, in a rocky place, a weary man, whose grunts have
been audible since this morning, who is trying to straighten
up a minute to catch his breath. The drama of these things
has its splendors. It is no invention of mine, and the expression
"the cry of the earth" was coined long ago. » Millet.

(Murphy et al., 1999)

A Brief Introduction to Millet’s Art

The French painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is considered to be the most influential and influencing artistic figure in the nineteenth century as his technique of painting and representing rural scenery on canvas came to revolutionize realism in painting, starting from the 1840s, into a more vivid and sensitive approach to embody the French peasants and rural life in France. A native of the northern region of France, Normandy, Millet studied in Paris, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paul Delaroche’s studio, where he followed an academic training and years after completion of his scholarship, he thrived to make a living out of the portraits and paintings he drew. Millet was also a part of the Barbizon School (1830-1870) among many other realist painters of his time like Theodore Rousseau, Charles-François Daubigny, Jules Dupré, and other prominent realist painters, whereby the main focus is painting landscapes including village surroundings, not portraying farmers as the main focus of their paintings, however. The movement came to embody the reality of life during that period in France in opposition to the romantic movement during the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the early years of Millet’s career as a painter were focused on classical themes before his interest became more centered on the depiction of peasantry in Norman landscapes.

Millet, J. F. (1857–1859). The Angelus [Painting]. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

The main concern of this article is Millet’s one of the famous paintings, The Angelus (1857-59), whose artistic aura had impacted many other painters, among them Salvador Dalí and Vincent van Gogh. In order to grasp the originality behind Millet’s The Angelus (1857-59), a brief overview of a few significant paintings of his, along with a comprehension of his interest in painting the French peasantry and landscapes of the Norman countryside are to be further studied for the purpose of grasping his mind of the artist.

Millet, J. F. (1850b). The Sower [Painting]. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA, U.S.A.

This personal concern of Millet in painting French farmers performing labor tasks lies in Millet’s family origins and his participation in farm tasks before he moved to Paris in 1837. For instance, Millet painted a large number of labor tasks, such as a farmer sowing seeds portrayed in his painting The Sower (1850) as described by (Murphy et al., 1999), “vigorous and robust, he trods diagonally down the hilly Norman terrain, scattering his precious seeds.” (pp. 50). The purpose of Millet in portraying the French farmers working in the fields was to emphasize the character of the farmer as a dynamic entity living and working in a rural setting, and thus giving Norman farmers much importance through art in order to shed light on the hard work of labor and farming, a subject which was rather given little importance by other realist painters of his time.

Millet, J. F. (1857). The Gleaners [Painting]. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Another rural scene is shown by a group of women gleaning the grains scattered all over the field in his painting The Gleaners (1875), as it is an old religious practice allowing the farmers in need to collect and harvest the leftovers grains on the soil. The shape of the feminine bodies bending, leaning downward, and performing the harvest of the scattered grains in the field has a powerfully symbolic effect, that of influencing the Western view on re-considering the peasant figure in rural settings—that is re-studying the farmer figure as a dynamic and living entity, no longer an insignificant character as in the case of American southern mills.

In other words, Millet’s depiction of various rural sceneries, like the gleaning during summer seasons, aimed to change the public’s perception of the farmers’ work towards a valorization and recognition of their endeavors. In fact, Millet’s representation of peasantry and life in the French countryside is an iconic “celebration of the tenuous balance between beauty and despair, labor and reward in the precarious cycle of country life.” (Murphy et al., 1999, pp.75)

Other rural sceneries reflecting the life of Norman peasants were depicted in The Shepherdess and Her Flock (1862-67), illustrating the life of French shepherds in plains. In 1864, The art critic and French journalist Jules Castagnary defended Millet’s depiction of the shepherd female figure after many other art critics’ attempts to attack and depreciate Millet’s art of peasantry and rural life, by stating “those who accuse him of exaggerating, as he pleases, the ugliness of our peasants will be satisfied this time; The young shepherdess has all the beauty and even all the rustic grace appropriate to her position and her race." (Murphy et al., 1999, pp.118).

Millet, J. F. (1862–1867). The Shepherdess and Her Flock [Painting].

The Alters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, U.S.A.

In Millet’s painting The Shepherdess and Her Flock (1862-67), the French painter portrayed a young woman, standing in front of a flock of sheep, seemingly sewing and the posture of the shepherdess is pretty similar yet thematically different from his other painting The Angelus (1857-59) as it is described in the book Drawn into the Light (1999), “The solemn—even prayerful—manner in which the shepherdess busies herself lends the scene a reverential air, not unlike the artist's most famous painting, The Angelus (Musee d'Orsay, Paris).” (Murphy et al., 1999, pp.118).

Millet’s The Angelus (1857-59)

The artistic representation of rural agriculture and peasant’s life in Millet’s art was harshly criticized by conservative French critics. In fact, he struggled to get his painting The Gleaners (1875) sold at an acceptable price and the painting was judged to incorporate unaesthetic and uninteresting themes as it is a reflection of the French peasantry. The Australian writer McCouat (2020) explains that Millet’s famous painting The Angelus was first named by Prayer for the Potato Crop, prior to its established name.

Millet’s painting was highly appreciated at first by the Bostonian writer and artist Thomas Gold Appleton due to the presence of themes, such as the rural setting and the harvest of potatoes by peasants, recalling him of the tragic historical event known as, the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) that Ireland witnessed, causing the death of a million Irish people because of starvation and disease. The deal was unsuccessful, however, leading Millet to search for another solution to make his painting more profitable for other art commissioners, for he added a church in the foreground, near the borders of the field, and altered the name of the painting to the Angelus. Millet’s choice of naming his painting by the Angelus was not done randomly, but rather purposely. In fact, when being asked about his preference for such a name, the French painter confessed that “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.” (McCouat, 2020). Millet’s echoic childhood memory reflected a sense of nostalgia rather than denouncing a certain religious agenda.

Millet’s The Angelus depicts two anonymous peasants, a man and a woman, whose facial traits were drawn in rather darker shades unlike their clothing and bodies, which are slightly clearer and brighter to the viewer. In addition to that, the references to farming materials, such as a pitchfork, several sacks, a basket of potatoes, and a wheelbarrow, are well-illustrated in the painting. The peasants’ vertical positions in comparison to the horizontal setting where they are standing, that is mostly a large cultivated plain located not so far from the village of Chailly-en-Bière in Barbizon, illustrates a daily scene of peasants after a potato harvest, taking a short break to pray after hearing the church bell from a church nearby the area where they work. The prayer known as the “Angelus", which means "angel" in Latin, is the opening word of the Annunciation: "Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae" or "the Angel of the Lord announced to Mary". (, n.d.).

In the nineteenth century, prominently in rural regions of France, the farmers and peasants were called and reminded by the church bells three times per day, at dawn, at noon, and later in the evening, to recite the Angelus, which according to McCouat (2020), “was not only a prayer, but a potent reminder of the structure of their daily working life, and of the life of their community”. In other words, the interpretation behind Millet’s The Angelus is to show that the Catholic religion had significantly impacted the French rural society at that time in terms of religious beliefs and traditions. On the other hand, the illustration of the French peasantry is also highly important to paint and represent, serving the French painter’s agenda to show the hard and exhausting labor tasks endeavored by peasant figures in rural agricultural settings.

Millet’s Influence on Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh, V. (1880). L’Angélus du Soir (naar Millet) (The Angelus, after Millet) [Painting].

Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Van Gogh was in total admiration of Jean-François Millet’s art describing him as “Millet is father Millet … counselor and mentor in everything for young artists.” (vincentvangogh, n.d.). In fact, the Dutch painter reproduced many of Millet’s works in his own style of realism, among them The Angelus, after Millet (1880), illustrated on paper with the use of pencil and red and white chalk. Unlike the twentieth century reproductions of Millet’s The Angelus by Salvador Dalí, Van Gogh reproduced an identical conception of Millet’s original painting The Angelus, keeping the same elements as Millet did—the two peasants, the pitchfork, several sacks, the basket of potatoes, the wheelbarrow and the church portrayed in the foreground.

Millet’s Influence on Salvador Dalí

Dalí, S. (1932). The Angelus [Painting]. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Catalonia, Spain.

« The Angelus of Millet suddenly became for me the pictorial work which was the most troubling, the most enigmatic, the densest and the richest in unconscious thoughts that I had ever seen » Dalí (, n.d.)

Dalí, S. (1933c). Les atavismes du crépuscule (phénomène obsessif) (Atavism at twilight (Obsessional Phenomenon)) [Painting]. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Catalonia, Spain.

Millet’s The Angelus had fascinated the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí to the extent that it became an obsession. Dalí expressed his emotions and reflections about Millet’s painting through his book The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus (1963) and also through various surrealist works that he painted in response to the sublimity of Millet’s work of art.

Dali, S. (1934). Réminiscence archéologique de l’"Angélus" de Millet (Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus) [Painting]. The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg , Florida, U.S.A.

Dalí, S. (1933c). Millet’s Architectonic “Angelus” [Painting]. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Catalonia, Spain.

Dalí’s interpretation of Millet’s The Angelus was not similar to previous artistic interpretation of the masterpiece as he thought it held hidden messages, implying that the couple was not reciting the Angelus, but rather reciting a prayer for the burial of their baby. Furthermore, the Spanish painter also noticed signs of pain, anguish, and even “repressed sexual aggression” (, n.d.), expressed by the couple and was convinced that the basket of potatoes was, actually, a coffin.

As a matter of fact, years later art analysts agreed to X-ray Millet’s The Angelus at the Louvre, which demonstrated the traces of a coffin drawn underneath the basket of potatoes. Also, the British art historian Dawn Adès (2016) confirms the presence of what she qualifies as “a dark shape in the ground at the feet of the peasants.” In addition to that, art analysts concluded that the church was added later by Millet, and was not originally drawn in the painting.

On the whole, Millet’s art treated other thematic subjects, which were considered to be of little importance to other realist painters and art critics and valorized sceneries of peasantry and rural landscapes in his mature paintings for the sake of celebrating the hard work and life of those significant and dynamic peasant figures. Not only did Millet’s art impact many painters over time, but it also inspired artists, such as Van Gogh and Dalí to create their own versions of The Angelus.

Image Sources

Dalí, S. (1932). The Angelus [Painting]. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Catalonia, Spain.

Dalí, S. (1933c). Les atavismes du crépuscule (phénomène obsessif) (Atavism at twilight (Obsessional Phenomenon)) [Painting]. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Catalonia, Spain.

Dalí, S. (1933c). Millet’s Architectonic “Angelus” [Painting]. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Catalonia, Spain.

Dali, S. (1934). Réminiscence archéologique de l’"Angélus" de Millet (Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus) [Painting]. The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg , Florida, U.S.A.

Millet, J. F. (1857–1859). The Angelus [Painting]. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Millet, J. F. (1857). The Gleaners [Painting]. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Millet, J. F. (1862–1867). The Shepherdess and Her Flock [Painting]. The Alters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, U.S.A.

Millet, J. F. (1850b). The Sower [Painting]. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh,PA,U.S.A.

Van Gogh, V. (1880). L’Angélus du Soir (naar Millet) [Painting]. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.


Adès, D. (2016). The Tragic Myth of Millet’s ‘Angelus.’ https://Thedali.Org. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from

Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus”, 1933 by Dali. (n.d.). https://Dalipaintings.Com. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from

McCouat, P. (2020). Millet and the Angelus How A Painting of Potato Farmers Became The Most Expensive Modern Painting in the World. Journal of Art in Society. Published.

Millet’s Architectonic Angelus, 1933 by Salvador Dali. (n.d.). https://Www.Dalipaintings.Com. Retrieved November 1, 2021, from

Murphy, A.R., Rand, R., Allen, B.T., Ganz, J., & Goodin, A. (1999). Jean-François Millet: Drawn into the Light. Williamstown, Massachusetts, U.S.A : Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

The Angelus (after Millet), 1880 by Vincent Van Gogh. (2009). Https://Www.Vincentvangogh.Org. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from

The Angelus (1857–9) by Jean-Francois Millet Interpretation of Realist Genre Painting. (n.d.). Visual-Arts-Cork.Com. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from


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Neyra Behi

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