The evolution of the peasant image

The evolution of the peasant image

  • The meridian or the siesta.

    VAN GOGH Vincent (1853 - 1890)

  • Hay.

    BASTIEN-LEPAGE Jules (1848 - 1884)

  • The Angelus.

    MILLET Jean-François (1814 - 1875)

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Title: The meridian or the siesta.

Author : VAN GOGH Vincent (1853 - 1890)

Creation date : 1889

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 73 - Width 91

Technique and other indications: Painted from a woodcut by Jacques Adrien Lavieille reproducing one of the four hours of the day drawn by J.F. Millet in 1858. Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 96DE19988 / RF 1952-17

The meridian or the siesta.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Hay.

Author : BASTIEN-LEPAGE Jules (1848 - 1884)

School : Realism

Creation date : 1877

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 160 - Width 195

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 94DE53282 / RE 2748

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: The Angelus.

Author : MILLET Jean-François (1814 - 1875)

School : Realism

Creation date : 1857

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 55.5 - Width 66

Technique and other indications: Commissioned by Thomas Gold Appleton in 1857, who did not take delivery. Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - C. Jean website

Picture reference: 90EE7 / RF 1877

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - C. Jean

Publication date: June 2013

Historical context

In the XIXe century, the peasants are sometimes described as backward brutes, sometimes as pure and virtuous workers. It is first of all the Physiocrats who criticize them for the archaism in which they vegetate: their passion for the land diverts them from productive investments, routine makes them ignore new plants and modern techniques. It is true that in the 1820s, for example, properties of 1 to 5 hectares represented three quarters of the farms and only 17% of the whole in value. “Rural majority, shame of France! "Exclaimed the young Republican deputy Gaston Crémieux in 1871.

In comparison, the peasants at rest in these three paintings appear strangely peaceful, enveloped in a serenity that communicates to the viewer.

Image Analysis

In The Meridian by Van Gogh, a couple of reapers interrupt their endless day with a nap in the shade of a millstone. "The midday nap, writes historian Maurice Agulhon," allows you to regain your strength, but not to avoid 'the great heat', which will hardly be less at two, three, or four o'clock at noon "(in G. DUBY, A. WALLON (dir.), History of rural France, t. III, Apogee and crisis of peasant civilization, 1789-1914, Le Seuil, 1976, p. 326). Van Gogh brings out the extreme heat of this August day by using only two intense and contrasting colors, golden yellow and light blue.

Hay de Bastien-Lepage give an impression of freshness through their green and white tones, despite the blazing sun that dazzles the fields in the background. The horizon line, placed very high, establishes the two reapers in the middle of the field, emphasizing the deep affinity that connects the peasants to the land. Like the peasants of Van Gogh, the peasant woman of Bastien-Lepage regains her strength, dazed, her face red and sweating; his fixed gaze sees nothing ”, as the painter himself says. The rest is also that which the peasant has deserved at the end of the day, when the night forces him to stop work.

The Angelus, Millet's masterpiece, evokes this moment. At a time when time is not measured accurately, the three angelus punctuate the daily life of rural people. The evening angelus resonates at nightfall. It provides the peasant with a biological rhythm at the same time as it arouses an "intensity of listening". Coming from the bell tower in the background of the painting, it sanctifies time but also space: it delimits by the sound carried a "reassuring territoriality". The Angelus is remarkable for the restrained emotion, the religiosity which its pious silhouettes inspire. The spiritual dimension of the painting, which its realism does not weaken (witness the pitchfork and the wheelbarrow), strongly contributed to the "invention of the eternal peasant".


The peace of these pictures comes from the world of innocence and kindness painted in the wake of Rousseau by many writers, such as George Sand, marked by the idealist socialism of the revolution of 1848. This left-wing agrarianism will respond, to the end of the century, a right-wing agrarianism inspired by the fear of industrialization and the development of the working class.

In the 1880s and 1890s, at a time when the rural exodus, the phylloxera crisis, the growth of industry, the economic depression weighed heavily on the rural world, the agrarians began to defend a peasantry that they adorn all the virtues. For agrarians of all stripes, the city and the factory know nothing but fever, hectic activity, unhealthy anxiety, while the countryside is a haven of peace. The serenity of the fields and the sacred rest of the peasant oppose the perpetual turmoil which makes the city a modern hell. This theme runs until The earth that dies by René Bazin and at Back to earth by Jules Méline, Minister of IIIe Republic, which recommended returning to "the nourishing land of fertile and eternal humanity."

  • rural exodus
  • peasants
  • agricultural work
  • rural life
  • working class


Pierre BARRAL, The French Agrarians from Méline to Pisani, Paris, Arman Colin, National Foundation for Political Science, 1968.

Caroline and Richard BRETTEL, The Painters and the Peasant in the 19th century, Geneva, Skira, 1983.

Jean-Claude CHAMBOREDON, "Painting of social relations and invention of the eternal peasant: the two manners of Jean-François Millet", Social science research proceedings, no.17-18, November 1977.

Alain CORBIN, The Bells of the Earth. Soundscape and sensitive culture in the countryside in the 19th century, Paris, Albin Michel, 1994.

To cite this article

Ivan JABLONKA, "The Evolution of the Image of the Peasant"


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