The Angelus is an oil painting on canvas realized by French painter Jean-François Millet between 1857 and 1859. It depicts two peasants in a potato field while reciting a prayer. The painting is an example of realist style and is currently in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Jean-François Millet in The Angelus portrays two peasants in a potato field at the end of their daily labor. At their feet, there are their work tools: the potato fork, a basket, the sacks, and the wheelbarrow. The two protagonists are caught in a moment of devotion: they are reciting, as the title suggests, The Angelus, a prayer taken from the Gospel of Luke and commemorating Mary’s annunciation by the angel Gabriel. , There is a bell tower and a small village in the background as well. The scene is set in Barbizon, a country area in north-central France, and the steeple is the church tower of Chailly-en-Bière.
The two peasants are portrayed in backlight, probably in the sunset at the end of the workday. Their relationship is not ascertained: they could be husband and wife, colleagues at work, or, as speculated by scholar Léon Gambetta, farmer and maidservant. Millet privileges shades of brown for both the human figures and the landscape, including the sky, which recalls the soil. The protagonists seem to merge with the environment, becoming one with nature. The painter depicts a scene of the ordinary spirituality of peasant life in the late 19th century, in which religion is part of working and daily life.
Completed between 1857 and 1859, The Angelus was commissioned by American art collector Thomas Gold Appleton, but he never purchased it. Millet, therefore, changed the painting’s initial title, from Prayer for the Potato Crop to The Angelus, and added the detail of the church steeple.
The work is currently part of the permanent collection of Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but it has a complex provenance history. In the nineteenth century, The Angelus was part of several private collections, passing through Paris and Bruxelles. It was part of the collection of Victor de Papeleu, Alfred Stevens, and Jules Van Praët. In 1889, the Louvre Museum attempted to purchase it, sparking popular protests. Its last transfer of ownership occurred in 1910, becoming part of the collection of Alfred Cauchard, who donated it to the state of France. Vandalized by a madman in 1932, it was transferred to its current home at the Musée d’Orsay in 1986.
The Angelus draws inspiration from an autobiographical memory of the artist from his childhood spent in Normandy. He carried out work in the fields for a long time. Millet recalls: “The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed.”
Despite the painting depicting a scene of religious devotion, Millet was not a fervent religious person. The painter was not interested in conveying a religious message but rather in showing a realistic scene of rural life. The Angelus prayer was a ritualized moment of spiritual meditation that characterized the rhythms of peasant life in the 19th century. The Angelus can also have political and social meanings, although the artist never spoke directly of social denunciation. It represents the difficult labor conditions of the working masses, showing solidarity and empathy with the workers.
Salvador Dali introduced an interpretation in addition to that of the prayer ritual, speculating that it was a funeral scene -also inspired by Gustave Courbet’s slightly earlier A Burial at Ornans (1850).
From an X-ray conducted by the Louvre Museum, a rectangular shape similar to a coffin was probably present in an early version of the painting, which would attest to the hypothesis. Millet would later change the subject to The Angelus.
- The Angelus is comparable to another artwork by Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857). Millet depicted three peasant women gleaning a wheat field, demonstrating his interest in rural life.
- The Angelus attracted attention from other later artists for its realism, including Vincent Van Gogh, who reproduced it in a pencil, watercolor, and chalk drawing.
Frequently Asked Questions
What art movement is Jean-François Millet part of?
Millet is considered to be one of the most famous exponents of Realism, an artistic current that aimed to objectively denounce the life conditions of the poorer social classes in the late 19th century. However, according to the artist’s stated intentions, Millet’s paintings arose primarily from expressive intentions. He wanted to depict his experience in the fields, an occupation the artist held until he was 21 years old.