Causing a storm upon its exhibition, Jean-Francois Millet's 1875 painting The Gleaners is a stark portrayal of three peasant women at work wherein, by nineteenth century standards, there is no drama and no story to unravel. After the famous 1824 Salon de Paris exhibition featuring the works of a young John Constable, rural scenes shifted in focus from objects of scorn to the dominant reflection of Romanticism in painting. Natural landscape scenes and reproductions from life of sweeping vistas were the curious embodiment of the revolutionary idealism that was sweeping Europe. Millet took the landscape scene one step further, including figures and moments from peasant life. There emerged the Barbizon school of painters, a branch of Romanticism that strove for Realism in art.
First exhibiting the painting at the Paris Salon of 1857, The Gleaners was immediately criticised by the upper echelons of society. Unsettlingly, the mere depiction of peasants was enough to stir leading art critics and patrons to denounce the work as a glorification of what they saw as the treacherous, brutal, revolutionary underclasses. Fresh from the French Revolution of 1848, Millet's controversial reproduction of peasant life shook French society into remembering its integral working classes that were not only the backbone of the nation but were also becoming increasingly interested in socialism. Managing to sell the painting for a minuscule amount, the storm that surrounded the work eventually subsided and Millet continued his steady career. Largely ignored during the artist's lifetime, by the late-nineteenth century The Gleaners had been donated to the Louvre, eventually finding its way to the MusÃ©e d'Orsay in Paris where it is housed to this day. A lasting testament to the revolutionary elements of pastoral Realism, The Gleaners is an elegant expression of a changing world.
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