It is a rough and uneven field in which the laborer works, rising here and there in small hillocks, and thickly overgrown with brambles and coarse tufts of herbage. When these weeds are loosened from the soil, they are raked in little heaps and burned. In the field just back of this is a circle of these bonfires, sending up their columns of smoke towards the sky. A young woman is busy raking together the piles. In the distance she looks like a priestess of ancient times presiding at some mystic rites of fire worship. Far beyond, a shapely tree is outlined against the horizon.
[Illustration: From a carbon print by Braun, Clement & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE MAN WITH THE HOE]
To study this picture profitably, we must consider separately the subject and the artistic qualities. These two elements in a work of art are often confused, but are in reality quite distinct. Very unpleasant subjects have sometimes been employed in pictures of great artistic merit, and again beautiful subjects have sometimes been treated very indifferently. When great art is united with a great subject, we have ideal perfection; but poor art and a poor subject together are intolerable. Now some people think only of the subject when they look at a picture, and others, more critical, look only at the qualities of art it contains. The best way of all is to try to understand something of both.
In the first glance at this picture we do not find the subject very attractive. The laborer is awkward, he is stupid looking, and he is very weary. If we are to look at laborers, we like to see them graceful, intelligent, and active like the Sower. As a redeeming quality, the Man with the Hoe has a certain patient dignity which commands our respect, but with all that, we do not call it a pleasant subject.
But look a moment at the strong, noble outlines of the drawing and see how finely modelled is the figure. So carefully did Millet study this work that he first modelled the figure in clay that he might give it more vitality in the painting. This Man with the Hoe seems indeed not a painted figure, but a real living, breathing human being, whom we can touch and find of solid flesh and blood.
We must note, too, how grandly the figure is thrown out against the sky and the plain. There is something to observe, also, in the proportions of the man to the background. The broad pyramid made by the bending figure and the hoe needs plenty of space at each side to set it off, hence the oblong shape of the picture. These, and other artistic qualities not so easily observed and understood, all give the picture “a place among the greater artistic conceptions of all time.”