I think the reason this work made a “splash” is reasonably simple: it represents and connects to so many people living at the time it was produced. If this piece was produced in 1860-1862 it was in the public eye right during the periods of industrialization and urbanization throughout Europe and the Americas. During this time in history there were massive enclosure movements happening in which lands were being consolidated forcing peasants and the rural population out into the cities where they could find work in industry. The man depicted is representative one of these many miserable rural people who have been displaced and who now are now even worse off than they were working the fields. I talk about industrialization and urbanization because I believe it applies to our discussion of primitivism and modernity. This work is created at the very beginning of when times, the world, and society are beginning to change. The old, rural world of the past is being replaced by the industrialized and urbanized world of the early 20th Century. In other words, the transition from the primitive world to the modern world that many of our writers seem concerned about, is beginning here with industrialization and urbanization as catalysts. Off in the distance there are light and beautiful trees, symbolizing a better place – presumably the modern world. Notice that the sky gets brighter as it gets closer to that place, and gets darker and gloomier as it moves toward the man is desolation. Yet, this man cannot even make it to the cities to try to start anew, but does it matter? Are the industrialized cities any better than this rural wasteland? Is the modern world any better than the primitive world? Is neither of the worlds good? I think Millet paints this work to ask us all of these questions. By painting this man as stuck, miserable and lost he purposefully gives us no answers. I think this work was so popular, because even aside from being able to relate, people were asking themselves the same questions and coming up with equally unclear answers. -- Matt Stevens
After reading "The Man with the Hoe" and examining this painting, I have acquired a renewed outlook on the laboring class in America during the mid-1800s. In his poem, Markham utilizes the repetition of rhetorical questions intended to romanticize the desperate plight and degraded physical and spiritual condition of the working man. Markham includes some aspects of Naturalist literature, which questions the existence of God in the midst of such a hopeless, cruel world. From the weary facial expression of the man in Millet's painting, we notice a similar "protest to the Powers that made the world,": with his mouth slightly agape and darkened eyes, this man appears more beastly than human and his bent posture suggest that he has spent most of his life bent over in toilsome labor (Markham). However, both the painting and the poem are effective in portraying the underclass with dignity, because even though man has been trampled on and exploited to the point of exhaustion, he will continue to stand. Even if his back is permanently made crooked and his has to lean on his hoe to keep from falling, Markham and Millet attribute a deep sense of respect and fear for the laboring man who will not be broken or remain silent for long.
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