Death and the Woodcutter

7:00 AM

Jean-Francois Millet, Death and the Woodcutter, 1859

Jean-Francois Millet pushes the boundaries of realism with this painting: one of serious nature that incorporates a religious aspect of death. The composition of the painting shows a great amount of detail in the foreground, allowing us to view the contours of Death’s bones; but the work lacks sharp lines in the background. This style relates to the literal world as objects are clear up close but lose focus as they are farther away. Millet’s other pieces show lower-class workers as the subjects, but this painting is the only that explicitly displays death. A white robe cloaks Death, against popular belief that Death wears black. Possibly Millet viewed death as pure and clean so he dressed this figure in all white. After all, people have never corroborated that death possesses an evil spirit, but rather our fear of its enigmatic nature generates a nefarious personality about it.

The ditch the woodcutter lies in bears no life, only rocks and brown dead space. He might have fallen down the side of the ditch from the green and alive, wooded area. In the Bible, people would climb mountains in order to be physically closer to God, such as when Moses climbs Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Death may be leading the woodcutter to the mountain that rests in the distance, so that he may ascend into heaven.  
As the earliest recorded evidence of the phrase: “Time flies,” Millet’s Death and the Woodcutter displays an awesome but startlingly-realistic aspect of life as death approaches us unexpectedly. The woodcutter appears to be finishing up after a long, toilsome day of collecting branches for which he most likely sells as his livelihood. The Reaper’s scythe represents how each life is like one stalk of wheat in the field of the world. It ends each life cycle as it marks the end of the annual harvest. Each branch the man holds is each year acquired over his life span. As Death pulls him, he loses his grip on the branches, signifying how he has lost his grip on the world. 

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