With Calling in the Gleaners, Jules Breton represented an ordinary scene of peasant life in Courrières, his native village in Artois. He did not show the gleaners at work, as Jean-François Millet had done two years before, but leaving the fields.
Several elements in the painting situate the scene at dusk: the thin crescent moon on the upper left, the presence of the rural policeman leaning against a milestone with his hands around his mouth like a speaking trumpet as he calls in the gleaners, but above all the sunset behind the trees which gives the painting the warm golden glow of late afternoon. Despite the presence of a few more realistic details such as the women's threadbare, ragged garments or bare feet, the painter has completely idealised the scene. The noble attitudes, the haughty bearing of the peasant women, and the frieze-like arrangement of the figures confer an air of nobility and poetry.
In turning away from the representation of the miserable plight of the labouring class of his early years to paint an idyllic, picturesque vision of the working world, Jules Breton pleased the critics and the public.
This painting was much admired at the Salon of 1859 and even caught the eye of the Empress Eugenie. The Empress arranged for its purchase on Napoleon III's Civil List. Initially exhibited at the Château de Saint Cloud, it was given by the Emperor to the Musée du Luxembourg in 1862, known at the time as the Musée des Artistes Vivants.