It could always be worse

Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868, by Édouard Manet
My friend Martha recently told me, “Taxes are the price you pay to live in a free society.” I’m doing my taxes this week and debating what I should post while I’m off in the land of spreadsheets and illegible receipts I never got around to entering.
I’ll start with some French realism today, to remind myself that things could always be worse. We could be struggling to heat our homes and our children could be executed for stealing crusts of bread. Officers could be convicted of heinous crimes simply because of their Jewishness.
Let’s start with Manet’s portrait of Émile Zola, who was France’s most important social realist writer. Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel prizes in literature (which were won, characteristically, by nobody you ever heard of). He is remembered chiefly for his championing of the falsely-accused French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus.
But that was still in the future when this painting was conceived. It was a thank-you gift for Zola’s passionate support of Manet’s work. The setting is Manet’s studio. On the wall is a reproduction of Manet’s scandalous Olympia, tying this painting very clearly to Manet’s gratitude. Zola is seated at his work table. The book, inkwell, quill, books and papers tell us he is a man of letters.
Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners, 1857. Note how the figures are dehumanized by their faces being obscured and how they are separated from the prosperity in the distance.
The French Barbizon painters championed realism as a painterly technique (in response to the accepted Romanticism of the time). But they were also social realists, taking an unflinching look at the vast poverty that endured in rural France.
Hunting Birds at Night, 1874, by Jean-François Millet.
Unfortunately, social realism can be tough to appreciate over time, because appalling poverty starts to look quaint when we are distant from it. This is the fate that has overtaken Jean-François Millet’s The Gleaners. In its day, it was an electric criticism of French society. The wealthy (who tend to buy paintings) seemed to get a whiff of the tumbrels of the French Revolution and it made them decidedly uncomfortable.  “His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved,” wrote one reviewer.

Short on money, Millet sold this painting at a sharp discount. A century and a half later, it is one of the most recognized and beloved paintings of all time.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!