Millet's masterpiece, entitled The Angelus, is another, much more highly Romanticized version of the same idea. Here is a scene neither of revolution nor of war. We're on a simple farm, looking at two humble peasants standing in prayer, alone in the fields at dusk. In this landscape we actually do see a church steeple far off in the background, and I think you know why. The Angelus depicts these two farm workers ideally, as humble and reverent saints, the man taking his hat off, the woman with her hands clasped as if in prayer, and both with their heads bowed. This shows them to be devout people regardless of their poor economic status—maybe even more devout for being "poor in spirit." The light also (as always) represents God's presence; and here it is dramatically painted with exaggerated tenebrism to stress the notion that His compassion descends even toward the lower class. After all, the center focus of this painting is on their piety, not the church way off in the background. This natural faith of the common man is idealized as the perfect form of Christianity. Jean-François Millet is artistically associating nature, the lower class, and a simple farmer's faith with spiritual perfection. We've come a long way from grandiose artwork of Greek gods and biblical heroes. These two, simple, faceless workers are nothing less than the heroes of the Modern age, and their plain, agrarian landscape, the new stage for the great drama of life.
It's hard to look at this painting without feeling a sense of profundity for the scene taking place, despite (or probably because of) its humble setting and characters. In some ways, a deeply spiritual lesson or moral from this "story" is almost inevitable, and it was for this reason that future generations would lash against such a work. Artist Salvador Dalí satirized it with a mock-recreation of the scene in his own painting with the same title as Millet's work. (When we get to Dalí—still a ways off—we will look at his painting). The original painting, it can be argued, does not lend any praise to the lower class at all but instead undermines its supposedly favorable characterization of the poor through prescribing aristocratic traits onto otherwise ignoble figures. This is very Anti-imperialist. The feeling is that only by showing these two peasants as subservient to the doctrines of Western evangelicalism are they held to amount to any importance in society, in government, and in the world as a whole. (In other words, Millet's Angelus has been considered offensive for trying to make the lower-class peasantry seem good only by bestowing aristocratic traits on them—essentially, painting a portrait of the upper-class merely in more ragged and rural settings). Did it not seem a little ignorant and impious for Marie Antoinette to dress up and play in her cottage Le Petit Hameau, pretending to be a member of the lower class when, in reality, the lower class starved under her ineffective reign? A similar charge is placed here.
This all stems back to the Enlightenment idea of the "noble savage." Millet's Angelus is a portrait of the lower class made "more likable" (for lack of a better way to put it) by their religious piety. Just who is such a painting in favor of? In the late 1600s, British Restoration writer Aphra Behn published a novel which best demonstrates the point here. In her novel, Oroonoko, the title character, a captive, black slave from Africa, revolts against the British and tries to reclaim the lost princess of his tribe and the love of his life, Imoinda. Our protagonist slave, nicknamed Caesar in the story, fights barehanded against traitorous Africans, despicable white slave traders, and even a wild tiger. He is nothing if not heroic; but was this novel really in favor of the black population and opposed to the slave trade? If you read Oroonoko in its entirety, it is impossible not to notice the glorious way in which Aphra Behn describes her main character—particularly in such a way that makes the black slave seem more like a white aristocrat. The idea of the "noble savage" gets first introduced just five paragraphs into the text, when the narrator describes her notion of "these people represent[ing] to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin." Caesar is described as being well educated, highly anglicized, and "more civilized, according to the European mode"—hardly a "savage." A description of him that presents him as especially white, written in shockingly racist language by today's standards, reads as follows:
He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet. His eyes were the most awful that could be seen, and very piercing, the white of 'em being like snow, as were his teeth. His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat; his mouth the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome. There was no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty. (Norton Anthology, p. 2317 – see citation at bottom)
So we see that there are some problems with the Enlightenment concept of the noble savage: a major one being that it became easy to simply impart aristocratic characteristics to the otherwise "savage" figure in order to make him noble. Individual, natural nobility, then, cannot be shown to exist independently of cultural upbringing, as the Enlightenment philosophers purported to argue. There is a fundamental flaw. What we think is characterization of the savage is in fact disseminated aristocracy—another kind of Versailles role-playing, dress-up game. Likewise, Millet's Angelus is disputed for inaccurately portraying the lower class as an altogether civilized, Christian, and humbly subservient class of Western society. It is aristocrats and kings, after all, who like to see peasants the way Millet paints them: with their heads bowed.
Did I explain that properly? Probably not. At any rate, we are quite out on a limb here and need to get back to the art. I bring this up to reference the rising debate over British imperialism at this time that will peak at the turn of the century and inspire artists and writers to, perhaps for the first time, honestly assess the situation of racism in Western culture. One of the ultimate literary attacks on imperialism would be published by Joseph Conrad in 1899, the novella Heart of Darkness (another book containing highly controversial language thought today to be too racist for some schools in the US and which has consequently earned a place in the American Library Association's list of top banned books of the 20th century).
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Comp. M. H. Abrams. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.