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The French artist Jean-François Millet is well known for portraying peasants and scenes from rural life. He once wrote of his work, “As I have never seen anything but fields since I was born, I try to say as best I can what I saw and felt when I was at work.” This can clearly be seen in The Angelus, a painting he completed in 1859.
You may not recognize its title, but you have probably seen a picture of The Angelus. The word “Angelus” actually refers to a Catholic prayer. Traditionally, church bells would ring three times a day, encouraging people to stop their work and say a prayer. Millet said that when he worked in the fields with his family as a child, his grandmother always made everyone stop and say the Angelus prayer at the sound of the bells. It was this memory that inspired his painting.
In The Angelus, a peasant couple is seen praying in a field at sunset. Their heads are bowed, and the man holds his cap in his hands while the woman’s hands are clasped together. There is a basket of potatoes at the woman’s feet, a handcart behind her, and a pitchfork stuck into the earth beside the man. In the distance, you can see a flock of birds and the steeple of a church. Overall, the image expresses a feeling of peace.
Unfortunately for Millet, The Angelus didn’t attract very much attention when he completed it. He ended up selling it for a small amount of money before his death. A decade later, though, the price of the painting started to increase considerably. After passing through the hands of several different owners, it was eventually owned by the state of France. Today, it hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It remains one of the most famous 19th century French paintings, and it is admired by visitors from all over the world.