Study of a gleaner, with its appealing detail study of an apron knot, is a preparatory work by Jean-François Millet for the etching that established his difinitive composition of The Gleaners. It constitutes one more 'last look' at the figure that had been Millet's final alteration of his preceding gleaners composition, Summer: The Gleaners (Kofu, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum) and as such the study is a telling testament to Millet's meticulous, continuous editing of his own work.
Since The Gleaners was among a group of Millet's etchings that were printed in January-February 1856, the present drawing can be dated quite clearly to the period between March, 1853 when Millet had finished his first gleaners painting and the late autumn or early winter of 1855, when the etched plate of The Gleaners was complete. Millet had developed his unforgettable grouping of three impoverished women gathering up stray stalks of grain over a period of several years, finally achieving the powerful balance of bending and standing figures in a series of small vertical paintings of the Seasons in 1853. With the 1855-56 etching project and the subsequent 1857 painting, The Gleaners (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), Millet adapted the original figure group to the more complex landscape setting allowed by a horizontal format. At first glance the only significant change in his figures appears to have been his movement of the standing gleaner figure just marginally rightward, to broaden the figural base offsetting the vast harvest scene in the distance.
But the newly discovered Study of a gleaner, with its emphatic fabric knot, calls attention to Millet's alteration of a seemingly minor costume detail as well. Where the standing gleaner in the 1853 painting had worn a long apron anchored against her heavy skirt with an inconspicuous string tied low behind her knees, the new standing figure has her entire apron gathered up in a sweep across her hips, ending in a large knot of apron-ends high on her buttocks. In both the etching and in the Musée d'Orsay painting (where the knot is shifted slightly lower) this change establishes a rythm of light-toned costume details that draws the viewer's eye through the three figures and into the background scene. But it is only in the 1857 painting that the meaning of Millet's final adjustment becomes clear, explaining the two placements fo the crucial knot that Millet assayed in Study of a gleaner. For in the Salon painting of The Gleaners, the insignificant knot leads directly to the otherwise easily overlooked garde champêtre, the mounted official deep in the background whose sole harvest responsibility was to be sure that no gleaner stole any grain to which she was not entitled. Until the very last moment, Millet drew and redrew a seeming perfectly realized group of figures, constantly refining his visual message about the social forces sustaining rural poverty.
We are grateful to Alexander Murphy for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.