Peasant Leaning on his Shovel depicts a young man resting on a bche, the distinctive flat blade used for opening hard-packed ground, and was drawn by Millet during the early 1850s.
Throughout his years in Barbizon, Millet made dozens of drawings, paintings and pastels of bcheurs laboriously breaking open the ground in preparation for sowing or pausing momentarily to lean wearily on their tools. Turning over the soil to kill off weeds or to make the loosened earth more welcoming for seed grain is precisely the task for which the horse or oxen-drawn plow was invented, and throughout the plain of Chailly the larger tracts of land were cultivated with the aid of horses. But the small plots owned by individual peasant families were often too narrow or irregular to allow a plow to turn around and most Barbizon families could not afford the upkeep for draft animals. Tilling the land manually became a distinguishing task of those peasants living most precariously.
Even more frequent in Millet's oeuvre than workers actually turning over the soil are the closely related images of tired men resting from the task, leaning heavily on the long handle of a bche. The present drawing falls early in the series of works that reaches its culmination in Millet's Salon painting of 1863, The Man with a Hoe (J.P. Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Unlike the bent and exhausted laborer who stares blankly from that infamous picture, the present bcheur has kicked off one shoe and leans his chin upon his hands atop the bche. But the greater dignity and near frontal pose of Peasant Leaning on a Shovel, as well as the drawing's size, suggest that Millet may have contemplated including this figure in a series of scenes of men and women laboring in the fields, Les Travaux des champs, which was engraved by Adrien Lavieille and published in the popular magazine L'Illustration in 1853.
We are grateful to Alexandra R. Murphy for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.