Making its debut at the annual Salon of 1857 in Paris, the painting caused a stir among the rich and middle classes that saw it as an affront from someone enamored with Socialism. I must admit my impression of the painting doesn't speak to politics but to determination of humans. But my research of the work finds the focus mostly on symbolism that pitted the misfortunes of the poor against the indifferent malice of the rich. The three women were called representatives of The Three Fates of Poverty and The Three Fates of Pauperism.
The artist was lauded then and even now for employing light in an inverted manner to add a warm glow to the workers and give them a "noble dignity."
"Jean-François you are a Christian before you are an artist," is what the artist's grandmother reminded him early on and to which he tried to remain true.
He grew up in poverty not unlike those women in the painting, and settled on the land with his family later in life. As an artist he just had a novel idea to paint what he actually saw- let's call it realism. So yes, it's real these women are scrounging for scraps of wheat after the field has already been plowed by a team of men (in tents in the background) and animals. Yes, there is a man on a horse rising above it all that could be the owner of the field. Yes, there are mountains of wheat that suggest abundance.
It is easy to say this painting shows the exploitation of the poor through harsh work and meager rewards. But there is another message I see and a message that's fading quickly from the western world. It gets back to hard work and surviving with noble dignity. It's wonderful that man was given the gift of adaptability to environmental conditions and economic circumstances, the ability to change his fortunes and take flight limited only by fears or boundaries established by other men.
That's what makes the American story so wonderful. Many of those manmade boundaries were removed and the sky was the limit. Sure, poverty exists today but it's nothing like poverty known in the past or that haunted the era in which The Gleaners was painted. But along the way the ability to dig deep down isn't around like it was in the past. These days the idea is nobody should bend down to pick up crumbs when they can have them delivered on the first and fifteenth of each month. The west created giant welfare states in a bid to engine a sense of equality but somehow managed to only create an environment of sloth and entitlement.
The few critics to defend Millet's work as not political but instead a commentary of man based on tenets of Christianity reminded us the artist came from a belief system that extolled hard work and believed:
"In the sweat of thy brow thou earn thy bread."
The fairness of outcome wasn't paramount as the determination to survive by one's own hands.
The Three Fates are the Spinner, Weaver and Cutter of the thread of life. Our fates are often spun out of our control but only temporarily as we ultimately can be the weavers of our dreams and direct the thread that gives us life.
Stocks have been ho-hum this week but there is a stealthy rally gaining strength as more investors become convinced bonds have peaked. Raising interest rates at some point can create competition for stocks but not for the moment, and the 10-year crossing a 2.0% yield should reignite the cult of equities. It's not going to happen overnight and there are few questions from 2012 that were answered coming into 2013. Still, there is no doubt the bias has shifted to the upside for stocks even as the Street braces for a disappointing earnings season.
It is said history repeats itself, or at the very least echoes the past but while human behavior is range-bound circumstances have changed and may not be repeated. In the western world poverty as it was known for centuries will probably never been seen again. Interestingly, changes in technology and attitudes that have eradicated scenes like that in Jean-Francois Millet's The Gleaners have also eradicated something else.