“Ave Maria! blessed be the hour!
The time, the clime, the spot, where I so oft
Have felt that moment in its fullest power
Sink o’er the earth so beautiful and soft,
While swung the deep bell in the distant tower,
Or the faint dying day-hymn stole aloft,
And not a breath crept through the rosy air,
And yet the forest leaves seemed stirred with prayer.”
[Illustration: From a carbon print by Braun, Clement & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE ANGELUS]
The atmosphere of prayer pervades the picture. The woman stands with bowed head and hands clasped over her breast. Her whole body sways slightly forward in the intensity of her devotion. Her husband has bared his head and holds his hat before him. Though he may seem somewhat awkward, he is not less sincerely reverent.
The sunset light shines on the woman’s blue apron, gilds the potato sacks in the wheelbarrow, and gleams along the furrows. Farther away, the withered plants are heaped in rows of little piles. Beyond, the level plain stretches to meet the glowing sky, and, outlined on the horizon, is the spire of the church where the bells are ringing.
As the meaning of the picture grows upon us, we can almost hear the ringing of the bells. Indeed, to those familiar with such scenes in actual life, the impression is very vivid. The friend to whom Millet first showed his painting immediately exclaimed, “It is the Angelus.” “Then you can hear the bells,” said the artist, and was content.
The solemn influence of the picture is deepened by the effects of the twilight on the plains. A wide outlook across a level country, like a view of the sea, is always impressive, but it has peculiar power in the vague light which follows the sunset. Many poetic natures have felt this mystic spell of the gloaming as it descends upon the plain. Robert Louis Stevenson was one of these, and upon visiting Barbizon he described vividly his feelings at such an hour. We are told also that Millet loved to walk abroad at nightfall and note the mysterious effects of the twilight. “It is astonishing,” he once said to his brother in such a walk, “how grand everything on the plain appears, towards the approach of night, especially when we see the figures thrown out against the sky. Then they look like giants.”
In nearly all of Millet’s pictures people are busy doing something. Either hands or feet, and sometimes both hands and feet, are in motion. They are pictures of action. In the Angelus, however, people are resting from labor; it is a picture of repose. The busy hands cease their work a moment, and the spirit rises in prayer. We have already seen, in other pictures, how labor may be lightened by love. Here we see labor glorified by piety.
The painting of the Angelus has had a remarkable history. The patron for whom it was first intended was disappointed with the picture when finished, and Millet had no little difficulty in finding a purchaser. In the course of time it became one of the most popular works of the painter, and is probably better known in our country than any other of his pictures. In 1889 it was bought by an American, and was carried on an exhibition tour through most of the large cities of the United States. Finally it returned to France, where it is now in the collection of M. Chauchard.