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In cultivated land sometimes…you see figures digging and hoeing. From time to time, one raises himself and straightens his back, as they call it, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand- ‘Thou shalt eat bread in the sweat of thy brow.’ Is this the gay and playful kind of work that some people would have us believe? Nevertheless, for me it is true humanity and great poetry.
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)*

In a review of Daniel Ridgway Knight’s Premier Chagrin (First Grief), Theodore Child of Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote, “Mr. Knight selects what is beautiful and pretty in the peasant, and avoids all that is hideous and unsightly.” This sentimental work, a highlight of the MOA’s collection, is often admired for both its technique and the touching depiction of a friendship between two young girls. It is curious that many artists and wealthy art collectors of the 19th century embraced and glorified the subject of French peasants. Compare and contrast the excerpt written by Theodore Child with that of noted French artist Jean-François Millet. How do both of these interpretations address the rise in popularity of artworks depicting French peasants?

Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839–1924) Premier Chagrin (First Grief)

Purchased with funds provided by Jack R. and Mary Lois Wheatley


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Millet’s comments reflect his own artistic approach of portraying peasants in a dignified, honorable way. Some viewed works like First Grief as an homage to those whose labor supported the needs of society. As industry began to infiltrate the livelihood of farming, the land and those who worked it became a manifestation of national character and a source of national pride.

The views of prominent philosopher Karl Marx caused many to contemplate and examine the economic structures underlying the increasingly industrialized economy throughout Europe. Many artists of this century, including Gustave Courbet, favored realism, or the unforgiving verities of everyday working life. The common workingman became a central figure in philosophy, literature, and art.

Child’s commentary seems to support the notion that peasants can be immortalized only when depicted in their idealized form and setting. The increased societal pressures of modernization and close proximity found in ever growing urban areas caused a surge in escapist landscape painting that transported viewers to a pastoral paradise of a simpler time.