Previously unknown, this large drawing of two Gleaners records a crucial step in the development of one of Jean-François Millet's most memorable compositions, the moment when he recognized the impact of having one gleaner press a hand against her straining back as she struggles across the harvested field. Among the large number of working sketches and finished drawings from which Millet shaped his two major gleaning paintings, this signed drawing stands out for the distinctive faces given the gleaners and for a complex composition anchored with a background scene based on his 1853 Salon painting Harvestors Resting, suggesting that the drawing dates from 1852-53.
Millet had been pondering and drawing gleaning themes since shortly after his arrival in Barbizon in 1849 - a gleaning scene is included among the early series of drawings 'Epoquée des Champs' which form a kind of catalogue for the subjects that would absorb Millet's attention throughout the next twenty-five years; and in 1852 Millet provided a complicated gleaning composition (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge) as the basis for a magazine illustration of August etched by his friend Charles Jacque. In 1853, Millet shaped elements from several earlier drawings into a vertical composition Summer, The Gleaners now in Japan for a series of Seasons; and in 1855-57, he rearranged the composition a last time for first an etching, then the Salon painting The Gleaners now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Although an age-old practice (in which the poorest members of a community were allowed to gather and keep for themselves any blades of grain left behind by communal harvestors), gleaning had been under increasingly frequent attack throughout France during the 19th Century. As commercial farmers consolidated small land-holdings into industrial-scale operations they regarded freeing themselves from the mutual obligations and restrictions that had bound smaller subsistence farmers for centuries as a critical step toward insuring profitability of larger farms regardless of the costs to the larger community.
Millet's slowly growing comprehension of the full political and economic import of the gleaning theme, and the great significance he attached to shaping figures that would convey the full implication of their task is documented in the large number of drawings the he made of gleaners. He explored various postures for his gleaners and a range of backgrounds. A signed and relatively finished drawing, the present Gleaners comes late in the progression of horizontal compositions, probably just before Millet switched to a vertical format for the first painting.
Much of the drawing's power as an image derives from changes Millet introduced in the second (right) figure, showing her gleaning with her left hand, thus extending her body in a drawn-out gesture that conveys the bent, forward movement she must sustain and which contrasts with the more closed pose of the woman beside her. And in raising the hand holding her small bounty of grain to press against her back, a gesture which appears here for the first time among the gleaners drawings, Millet simultaneoulsy suggested her physical discomfort and also opened up her youthful body to the viewers gaze. The new position for the second figure introduced a contrast between the two gleaners who had been mere repetitions of each other; and Millet pressed the distinctions further, giving the second gleaner the softer features of a youthfyul face and muscular arms to accompany her trimmer figure and more energetic gesture. The first gleaner was characterized with the sharp chin and pointed nose with which Millet often indicated age, as well as a bony back beneath her dress and a withered reaching arm. Implicit in this contrast of figure types was Millet's recognition that abject poverty now plagued the young and healthy as well as the oldest members of a community - the gleaners of traditional imagery.
Nothing is known if the history of the drawing, except that the frame bears a fragmentary label form Détrimont, a framemaker and gilder whom Millet utilized during the 1850s and who went on to become a dealer who often sold works by Millet and his contemporaries to American clients.
We are grateful to Alexandra Murphy for her assistance in preparing this ctalogue entry.