In a gloomy barn a winnower holds a wide, shallow basket with no lip at the front. With skilful shaking, the chaff could be worked to the front and tipped over the edge, leaving the grain behind. This painting is one of Millet’s first to treat the theme of peasant life. He exhibited it to some acclaim at the Salon of 1848, the year of the revolution that led to the downfall of King Louis-Philippe and the establishment of the Second Republic. One of the factors leading up to the revolution was rural distress, including bad harvests, and many commentators discern a political angle in the painting, or at least sympathy on the part of the artist towards agricultural workers.
At this stage in his career Millet often reused his canvases. This picture is painted over a sequence of limbs, possibly studies of naked figures Millet had carried out as part of his training.
In a gloomy barn a winnower holds a wide, shallow basket with both hands against his thighs, tilted slightly downwards. Out of its far side rises a cloud of golden chaff. He wears open-backed clogs stuffed with straw, pieces of blue cloth tied over his knees and a red handkerchief tied over his hair. The basket is a special winnowing fan, with no lip at the front, so that with skilful shaking the chaff could be worked to the front and tipped over the edge, leaving the grain behind. Winnowers were considered expert labourers.
Millet may have started this painting, one of his first to treat the theme of peasant life, as early as the end of 1846. He exhibited it at the Salon of 1848, the year of the revolution that led to the downfall of King Louis-Philippe and the establishment of the Second Republic. One of the factors leading up the revolution was rural distress, including bad harvests, and many commentators discern a political angle in the painting, or at least sympathy on the part of the artist towards agricultural workers. It has been suggested, for example, that the lone figure has hired himself out to earn money to help support his family.
On the whole the critics reacted favourably to the painting’s exhibition at the Salon, although Théophile Gautier was critical of Millet’s handling; ‘He trowels onto his dishcloth canvas, using no oil or turps, great masonries of colour, paint so dry no varnish could quench its thirst. Nothing could be more rugged, ferocious, bristling and crude’. One of the reasons for the thick application of paint is undoubtedly the fact that Millet was painting on top of another picture. At this stage of his career, with success still in the future, he would often reuse his canvases, painting on top of existing compositions and even cutting canvases up. This happened with his Saint Jerome tempted, which was rejected from the Salon of 1846. He cut the canvas into two pieces, using the larger section for his Oedipus Cut Down from the Tree (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which he exhibited at the Salon of 1847.
Underneath The Winnower is a painting of a sequence of limbs, including one, or possibly two naked legs, and a larger forearm, bare wrist and clenched left hand. It has not been possible to identify these, or link them with certainty to existing works by Millet. It is most likely that they relate in some way to académies, painted studies of naked figures carried out by art students as part of their training. The Winnower was bought by the newly appointed Minister of the Interior in the provisional Republican government, Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin. It was later in the collection of the American artist Robert Loftin Newman. For many years it was presumed destroyed, and only reappeared near New York in the 1970s.
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