The Man with the Hoe has probably caused more discussion than any other of Millet’s paintings. From the very first those who care only for the subject of a picture have condemned it, while the critics have praised its artistic qualities. Many have thought that Millet made the subject as unpleasant as possible in order to show the degrading effects of work. The same theory was suggested when the Sower and the Gleaners appeared. The painter himself was much troubled by these misunderstandings. “I have never dreamed of being a pleader in any cause,” he said. He simply painted life as he saw it, and had no thought of teaching strange doctrines against labor. Indeed, no man ever felt more deeply than he the dignity of labor.
When everything which could be said for or against the picture had been exhausted on the other side of the Atlantic, the picture was brought to this country and finally to the State of California. Here the discussion began all over again. There were those who were so impressed by the unpleasant character of the subject that they could not find words strong enough to express their horror. The Man with the Hoe was called “a monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched,” a “dread” and “terrible” shape, “a thing that grieves not and that never hopes,” a “brother to the ox,” and many other things which would have surprised and grieved Millet.
Of course, any one to whom the pathos of the subject itself appeals so strongly can have little thought for the artistic qualities of the picture. So Edwin Markham, the writer of the poem from which these expressions are quoted, lets the subject lead him on into an impassioned protest against “the degradation of labor,—the oppression of man by man,”—all of which has nothing to do with the picture.
Millet was not one to care at all for what he called “pretty” subjects, as we have already seen in studying the picture of the Milkmaid. “He felt that only by giving to his figures the expression and character which belonged to their condition could he obey the laws of beauty in art, for he knew that a work of art is beautiful only when it is homogeneous."
This was the theory which he put into practice in the Man with the Hoe, and one who understands well both his theories and his art sums up the great painting in these words: “The noble proportions of the figure alone would give this work a place among the greater artistic conceptions of all time, while the severe and simple pathos of this moment of respite in the interminable earth struggle, invests it with a sublimity which belongs to eternal things alone.” 
[Footnote 1: Pierre Millet in the Century.]
[Footnote 2: Henry Naegely.]
THE PORTRAIT OF MILLET