Man with a Hoe (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
His hands pressing down on the handle of his crude tool, an exhausted worker looks up to catch his breath.
The placement of his hat and jacket nearby suggest how slow his progress tilling the ground has been. The rocky, uncultivated terrain is stubborn, a far cry from the fertile plain beyond.
Though stooped and weary, the worker is an imposing figure who looms above the horizon and greatly outscales the woman burning weeds and the plowing team in the distance.
Man with a Hoe was the culmination of an idea that had been germinating for years, and it joined an epic suite of rural subjects that Millet was developing in various mediums.
Centering humble yet monumental figures in the foreground of vast plains, these works aimed, in Millet’s words, “to make the trivial serve in the expression of the sublime.”
Millet grew up in a small farming community in Normandy, France, and eventually settled in the rural village of Barbizon, not far from Paris. He identified with agricultural workers and was quite capable of wielding a tool himself. His supporters portrayed him as a heroic figure, a kind of Michelangelo of peasant painting—with the heavy beard and piercing eyes to match.
Critics, however, suspected a dangerous political agenda in his solemn efforts to aggrandize his humble subjects. In the lingering shadow of the 1848 Revolution, which had politicized large swaths of the rural proletariat, conservatives accused Millet, falsely, of being a socialist agitator.
Scandal at the Salon
Man with a Hoe scandalized viewers when Millet first exhibited it in 1863 at the state-sponsored Paris Salon. Some felt that the painting represented an ugly new low for modern realism, and they attacked Millet for making a spectacle of human degradation.
To them Millet’s laborer was a repugnant “cretin” and “idiot.”
Many caricaturists mocked the perceived deformation of the man’s skull. As the caption to this caricature reads, this “unfortunate peasant” was digging “in the hope of finding the other half of his head.”
The contemporary pseudoscience of phrenology linked such cranial malformation with criminality, and one cartoonist even compared Millet’s figure to notorious serial killer Martin Dumollard, whose trial and execution had riveted France in 1862.
Millet had anticipated the negative reaction to his painting, writing in 1862:
“Man with a Hoe will shock many people who do not like being occupied with things from a world other than their own and being disturbed; but here I am on this ground and here I will stay.”
Facsimile reproductions of a letter and sketches by Jean-François Millet (ca. 1864) by H. de Villemessant & G. Bourdin, editors and Jean-François Millet, artistOriginal Source: L'Autographe au Salon de 1864 et dans les ateliers
In order to counter his critics at the Salon, Millet wrote a passionate artist’s statement in the form of a letter.
In it, he affirmed his personal identification with rural workers, and depoliticized his painting by giving it a Biblical interpretation.
His professed concern was a fundamental human condition, as described in the Book of Genesis: the fatal necessity of having to eke out a living from the earth “by the sweat of one’s brow.”
Facsimile reproductions of a letter and sketches by Jean-François Millet (rotated) (ca. 1864) by H. de Villemessant & G. Bourdin, eds. and Jean-François Millet, artistOriginal Source: L'Autographe au Salon de 1864 et dans les ateliers
He also emphasized his sensitivity to the beauties of God’s creation, refusing to be characterized as a radical realist reveling in ugliness.
“Some tell me that I deny the charms of the country. I find much more than charms—I find infinite glories…. I see the halos of dandelions, and the sun, which spreads out beyond the world its glory in the clouds. But I see as well, on the plain, the steaming horses at work, and in a rocky place a man, all worn out . . . who tries to straighten himself a moment and breathe. The drama is surrounded by beauty.”
In 1864 Millet had the letter published, along with some sketches that were decidedly unthreatening (ducks, a boat, a landscape, a peasant girl profile) and that alluded only indirectly to Man with a Hoe . . .
. . . a detail of the hoe blade . . .
. . . and the woman burning weeds.
The letter came to be widely celebrated as the artist’s definitive credo.
Shepherdess and Her Flock (about 1864–1865) by Jean-François MilletThe J. Paul Getty Museum
His Next Move
Embracing less confrontational subjects that could broaden public support, Millet rebounded strongly at the 1864 Salon with a bucolic painting of a young shepherdess knitting and tending her sheep, now in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay.
Critics hailed it, the government tried (unsuccessfully) to purchase it, and dealers and collectors came calling. The composition was so marketable that Millet made at least three pastel variants, including the one shown here.
In 1864 Man with a Hoe disappeared from public view when it entered a private collection in Brussels. A few years after Millet’s death in 1875, the painting resurfaced in Paris, this time to acclaim. Millet was being lionized as a great modern master and critics quickly proclaimed Man with a Hoe a masterpiece—a gravely compassionate work that distilled the artist’s philosophy into a single, memorable figure.
Title page, "Cent chefs-d’oeuvre des collections parisiennes" (ca. 1883) by Galerie Georges PetitOriginal Source: Cent chefs-d’oeuvre des collections parisiennes, exhibition catalogue
The painting was a major highlight in the 1883 blockbuster exhibition, “One Hundred Masterpieces from Parisian Collections,” organized by high-end dealer Georges Petit in his palatial gallery.
Subsequent exhibitions at the first Millet retrospective (1887) and Paris World’s Fair (1889) further cemented the painting’s iconic status.
The Man with the Hoe (1893) by Orcutt Litho Co., lithographer and Jean-François Millet, artistOriginal Source: Art gems from the World's Columbian Exposition
In 1890 American collectors Ethel and William H. Crocker—heirs to a great railroad fortune—bought Man with a Hoe in Paris and had it shipped back to their home in San Francisco.
Millet’s star was at its zenith and the painting instantly became the most famous European picture on the West Coast, its image circulating widely through mass reproductions.
In 1899, nearly 40 years after it was painted, Man with a Hoe once again was embroiled in controversy thanks to an impassioned protest poem it inspired: Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe.”
The poem describes the brutalization of humanity by oppressive labor, blames the ruling classes, and intones prophetically about a future reckoning:
How will the Future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings—
With those who shaped him to the thing he is—
When this dumb Terror shall reply to God,
After the silence of the centuries?"
Man with a Hoe (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
In the glaring inequality of America’s Gilded Age—a time of explosive class tensions and increasing agitation for structural reform—Markham’s poem, and Millet’s painting by extension, triggered a fierce national debate about the causes of the working poor’s terrible condition.
From across the political spectrum commentators wondered: Were deplorable labor conditions and an unjust social organization to blame? Or was it fateful nature, whose laws of evolution and heredity inevitably produced inequities?
Furthermore, were there any remedies and what might they be? Who was responsible for lifting up the proverbial man with the hoe? Government, faith leaders, educators? Or the self-reliant individual himself?
Millet’s painting had become an ideological flashpoint in a divided country, sparking vital questions that we still struggle with today.
© 2023 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
A version of this material appeared as the in-gallery text accompanying the exhibition “Reckoning with Millet’s Man with a Hoe,” on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles from September 12-December 10, 2023.
For further reading, see the related book of essays, Reckoning with Millet’s Man with a Hoe, 1863-1900 (Getty Publications, 2023).
To cite this exhibition, please use: "Reckoning with Millet's Man with a Hoe" published online in 2023 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.