Jean-François Millet: The Gleaners
Millet first unveiled The Gleaners at the Salon in 1857. It immediately drew negative criticism from the middle and upper classes, who viewed the topic with suspicion: one art critic, speaking for other Parisians, perceived in it an alarming intimation of "the scaffolds of 1793." Having recently come out of the French Revolution of 1848, these prosperous classes saw the painting as glorifying the lower-class worker. To them, it was a reminder that French society was built upon the labor of the working masses, and landowners linked this working class with the growing movement of Socialism. The depiction of the working class in The Gleaners made the upper classes feel uneasy about their status. The masses of workers drastically outnumbered the members of the upper class. The drastic differences in numbers meant that if the lower class was to revolt the upper class would be overturned. With the French Revolution still fresh on the upper class' minds, this painting was not perceived well at all.
Millet's The Gleaners was also not perceived well due to its enormous size. The size of the painting is 33 inches by 44 inches or 2.75 feet by 3.7 feet. This is huge for a painting depicting labor. Normally this size of a canvas was reserved for religious or mythological style paintings. Millet's work did not depict anything religiously affiliated, nor was there any reference to any mythological beliefs. The painting illustrated a realistic view of poverty and the working class. One critic commented that "his three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty…their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved." While the act of gleaning was not a new topic—representations of Ruth had existed in art—this new work was a statement on rural poverty and not Biblical piety: there is no touch of the Biblical sense of community and compassion in the contrasting embodiments of grinding poverty in the foreground and the rich harvest in the sunlit distance beyond. The implicit irony was unsettling. [Wikipedia]
[More on the painting from Musée d'Orsay] [Video commentary on the painting]