Jean-François Millet

The Baker, 1854, Oil on Canvas, 21.3 x 18.1” (55 x 46cm), Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands

Bread is the story of human civilization. Food historians speculate that the making of bread began somewhere between 10,000 to 9400 BC, or perhaps not until the known cultivation of wheat and barley between 8,000 to 7,000BC, or maybe last Thursday at the bowling alley off Cooper Street. (Oddly, no one seems to mind when pre-historians are off several millennia.) There also seems to be some uncertainty as to whether beer or bread came first, but this strikes me as silly. Surely wine came before either Face it, wine begins to make as soon as a grape’s skin is crushed. If deer can figure out the value of overripe, fermented fruit, even early humans must have found it a snap. It seems likely that lessons learned from the production of wine would be applied to beer later. Since wild yeast exists everywhere in the air, the idea that leavening would have snuck its way into doughs and brewing mashes is accepted by everyone. I’m glad that everyone accepts all these speculations, and I am sure they are all probably true, but they are no less flabbergasting for that.

Why flabbergasting? Well, what else was happening around then? Not much. Humankind was pretty darned primitive. It could make sharp stuff out of dull stuff and had learned to do simple weaving (as for baskets) and how to sew skins together for garments. Their weaponry was crude, best used on larger things like boars, and mammoths, and men.. To indulge their taste for birds they would wait for dark and catch them sleeping in the forest and capture the birds with clubs and with their hands. Somehow, in the middle of these dizzying intellectual accomplishments, we are told that somebody, or some group of somebodies, proposed the following: I’ll bet that odd grass over there will be good to eat if we wait until it seeds and goes brown and dries and then if we gather it up and thresh it (Whatever that is. Guess we’ll have to invent it.) and then invent a method for winnowing the chaff to finally get to what we’re guessing might be the really useful part, maybe. Of course, having done all that we must remember to grind it into an unpalatable powder.

That is spooky magic to me. I am a baker. My father was a baker before me. Baking is challenging, even when you have all the advantage of knowing how and why it works. How much harder must it have been for stone age people? Forget all that pyramid nonsense, if you want evidence of ancient astronauts, I say look at your pbj sandwich. Surely some flying saucer landed in the caucasus or somewhere and the aliens came sparking out of the hatch like some disco dream in their shiny space duds and took the time to get everybody started in the bread bidness. Is that really harder to believe than what scientists theorize?  Try to explain step by step how bread really got started so that a reasonable person will accept your explanation. These are very primitive human beings we are talking about here. Can you imagine the trial and error? Why wouldn’t they quit? Think of the steps. 1) This must be food. (Bites in, spits it out. Bah that tastes like crap.) 2) Wait for it to die and dry out. (Bites in, spits it out. Bah, that tastes like crap.) And so on through step after step after step all of which result in something unpleasant and inedible. Why would anyone keep trying in a world filled with fresh meat and succulent fruits?

No sir. Magic, I say. Ancient mirror balls.

Who can blame the mystic of the middle ages for believing in alchemy when bakers produced miracles every day? And bread is a miracle. The baker makes life; he can feel its warmth and essence in his fingertips. He encourages the yeast, feeds it sugars so the yeast dance like the Village People holding up their little arms and spelling YMCA to stretch the gluten. And when they reach their peak, when they are at their most yeasty joyous the baker slides them from the peel into the inferno and they die because what he wants is the thing they made, and for him they are no longer useful. Left to live they will collapse the thing he had them build and that would never do. That’s the only reason he tolerated their living, was to make this thing, this loaf for the baker’s lord.

The Winnower, 1846-1847, Oil on Canvas, 31.1 x 23.2” (79 x 59cm), Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

Before the baker is the mill. The winnower supports the miller who makes the flour for the baker. He tosses the threshed wheat into the air from his winnowing basket and the heavy grain falls back to the weave and the stripped and wasted chaff floats and is carried away on the air to expire with the breeze, or to fall and drown in the millbrook, or to be inhaled into the lungs of the winnower and the miller and the miller’s daughter all of whom will die young in the service of the loaf.

The Gleaners, 1857, Oil on Canvas, 33.1 x 43.7” (84 x 111cm), Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

Before the mill there is the field. The gleaners come when the harvest is done. They search patiently for what small leavings they can scrounge. The lord and his workers are vanished in the background. Millet shows us the gleaners instead; he is an artist who feels connection to the soil, its people, its product. His very name is a kind of grain. And he feels for the poor women gleaning among the meager remains of harvest. For his part the lord is satisfied that he got by far the most of what there was to be had. He could go to the gleaners if he wished, and take what they had found. Technically it is still his. But that would mean he would have to deal with them and why should he bother? He has his loaf. He and his brothers have almost all the loaves there are. He can afford to let these poor women have his leavings. After all, they are only village people. He is a tolerant lord.

Before the field there is the stone and the earth and the mix of places where life grows and does not grow. A woman sits on a stone making something sharp from something dull. A man weaves a basket. Another sews hides together. All of them are eating simple bread. They share a secret look and stare out at us, amused. In the distance there are lights. And maybe there is music. And maybe they will show us something new, like who is back there in the lights. Or how to catch a bird at night!

Hunting Birds at Night, 1874, Oil on Canvas, 29.1 x 36.6” (74 x 93cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA

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6 Responses to Jean-François Millet

  1. I’m just glad I get to eat the bread my baker makes.

  2. CMStewart says:

    Alien-prompted baking. Makes sense to me. Aliens influenced other components of our evolution as well. I say the aliens are to blame for the sorry state we’re in, but at least they gave us baking.

  3. Today I found something interesting in the flea market, 2 copies of his paintings : The Gleaners and The Angelus; then I came across this post of yours, thank you for your writings. I love Millet and the subjects that he painted, which inspire me to think about the hierarchy of social and cultural values, in today’s world.

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