Tomorrow is the feast day of St Benedict of Narsia, patron saint of farm workers. So this week’s picture is Jean-Francois Millet’s celebrated depiction of mid-nineteenth-century agrarian labour at its harshest: The Gleaners. The picture was painted in 1857, and exhibited at the Paris Salon in the same year. It can be seen in the Louvre, in Paris.


 Millet shows three women, two of them bent almost to the ground by their labour, the third pausing, in a moment of exhaustion, to catch her breath. Behind them in the middle distance, some farm labourers are piling forkfuls of grain into a cart, while others build mounds of it into towering stacks. The harvesters toil under the watchful gaze of an overseer mounted on horseback. A flock of distant birds, speckling the honey-coloured sky, has gathered in the hope of finding some leftovers on which to feed. The women in the foreground of Millet’s painting have also come in search of leftovers. They are not harvesting, but gleaning, picking up the remnants left once the crop has been gathered. They reach down into the stubble of the shorn field for single stalks of wheat, to add to the meagre bunches they have already gathered into the improvised burlap sacks tied to their waists.

The right to glean was traditionally reserved for the most indigent members of rural society. In Millet’s time, French law specifically allowed for any member of the agrarian poor who might be in special need – whether through age or illness or some financial setback – to follow the harvest and collect whatever blades of grain might have been missed by the reapers’ sheaves. The painter emphasises the back-breaking, repetitive nature of the gleaners’ minimally rewarding labours, through the parallel gestures of the two...

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