Born in Gruchy, France, to a family of farmers, Jean-François Millet referred to himself as the “painter of peasants.” In 1837, as a student of the history painter Paul Delaroche, he met fellow pupil Théodore Rousseau. Rousseau was the leader of Barbizon painters working in the Forest of Fontainebleau southeast of Paris. Artists of the Barbizon School believed in recording their unmediated observations of nature and rural life, a fundamental challenge to established artistic tradition. Millet, who followed a very similar philosophy, moved to Barbizon permanently in 1849. Although the group’s primary focus was landscape painting, Millet specialized in rural genre scenes that featured peasants and laborers involved in everyday activities.
Millet began "Going to Work" in 1851, several years after he had stopped painting portraits and academic nudes to concentrate on naturalistic images of rural life. Although human beings are central to his art, his portrayals tend to be highly generalized. He was less interested in depicting individual peasants than in representing humankind and its struggle with the soil. Although Millet was criticized severely for his simplified style, his images are invested with a grandeur that compensates for any perceived technical deficiency. To Millet, the peasants’ performance of their domestic tasks suggested heroism, moral virtue, and often a religious message.