The Angelus

7:00 AM

Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus, 1858

People often claim they can hear the church bells ringing in the Angelus prayer as they look at this painting. Although it’s a nice sentiment, all I hear when I look at this painting is overwhelming silence. Maybe the church bells rang at one point, but these figures, frozen in time, have long outstood the chimes. For me, the figures are statues, monuments to the peasants’ strife in the mid- 19th century. The wind may blow and the ground may freeze, but the peasants never leave their field. The world around them may change, but they will stand forever.

Jean-Francois Millet, unlike many painters of his day, found living in bustling Paris tedious and unfulfilling. He grew up as a peasant and, after an unsuccessful excursion to the city, moved back to rural France where he began painting scenes that represented real life in the small farming communities that he had always known. Much of his work shocked wealthy critics and viewers, who couldn’t believe that Millet painted poor working class nobodies and called it “art.” However, Millet became known among the other classes as a “people’s painter” and the “painter of peasants.” His work did not sell for much in his lifetime, for most of the people who actually appreciated it had no means to acquire it. American collector Thomas Gold Appleton commissioned the Angelus after Millet became well known throughout the art world for his The Gleaners. Even though Appleton never came to collect the painting, Millet, unfazed, continued to paint his trademark peasant scenes.

Millet painted The Angelus from memories of his own childhood. He said, “The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say The Angelus prayer for the poor departed.” The Angelus is a prayer said three times a day. Here, the peasants are saying the final prayer of the day at six in the evening. The prayer calls for humility and gratitude for all of Christ’s blessings. These peasants stop their grueling work to say the prayer, even though they themselves are not blessed with a plentiful harvest.

Their small basket is barely filled with potatoes and the rest of the field is depleted. Shadows cover their faces, and their bowed figures are almost silhouettes under the darkening sky. When they have finished praying, perhaps they will continue to labor in the field, or maybe they will pick up their basket and wheelbarrow and return to whatever hut they call home. In the background we can see the steeple of a church rising from the horizon and the accompanying town. These peasants do not belong there. Though they are in the background of society, they are the forefront of this painting. However, despite their statuesque importance, they still fall beneath the shadows of nature, the same nature that has left them poor and starving. And they still pray The Angelus for the “poor departed” and give thanks for their meager pile of potatoes. This may seem ironic to some, but Millet, whether he knew it or not, inspired many people with this painting. Like the peasants in the frame, this painting has withstood the test of time and still inspires many who view it - and it certainly inspires me.             

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