- Historic Sites
They Knew What They Liked
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
The poem leaped across the continent like a prairie fire, was reprinted in countless newspapers, became the subject of editorials, oratory, debate, and outpourings of praise from such disparate persons as Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Dr. David Starr Jordan, William James, Henry van Dyke, Eugene V. Debs, Henry Ford, Leland Olds, and William Jennings Bryan. William Randolph Hearst employed Bryan to interpret the poem’s message in the New York Journal. Bryan tied it directly to the political issues of the day—tax laws, child labor, trusts, and monopolies. Markham’s phrases and couplets were on every tongue—”a brother to the ox,” “slave of the wheel of labor,” and the apostrophe to “masters, lords and rulers in all lands,” with its ambiguous but threatening warning of impending menace. The Christian Register saluted both Markham and Millet for sounding a call for social justice in an age that worshipped success, long-distance telephones, and roll-top desks. Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate, taking the other side of the question, offered a prize for the best poetical answer to Markham and Millet. Francis J. McConnell, senior bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church and former president of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, preaching a retrospective sermon on “Brotherhood” in 1943, favored the poem over the picture. “I do not pretend,” he said, “to a knowledge of poetic form, nor to a superior understanding of art, but I have always felt that Markham’s poem of The Man with the Hoe is much more powerful than Millet’s painting.” The bishop didn’t know much about either poetry or art, as he freely admitted, but he knew what he liked.
With unusual presence, a quiet manner, gray beard, and long hair, appearing, as Louis Filler has said, like “a somewhat more responsible Whitman,” Markham leapt to international fame and made a tidy fortune out of his proletarian protest. It was endlessly parodied, as The Man with the Load, The Man with the Lawn-Mower, and The Woman under the Heel of the Man with the Hoe. Fallacious though it was to make the analogy between the French peasant and the American farmer, the latter already largely industrialized with power machinery, both the angry upholders of the status quo and its bitterest opponents accepted the comparison as being relevant.
The artist himself repudiated any attempt at preaching through paint. With his feeling for the rhythm of life and nature and the seasons, Millet was a part of the peasant world he studied, nicknamed significantly during his stay in Paris, the “Wild Man of the Woods.” He was decidedly not the type to speak for the proletariat.
Jean François Millet was born in October, 1814, in the hamlet of Gruchy, near Gréville. The father and mother cultivated their farm, maintaining the family in respectable poverty. Jean François, too, labored in the fields, and precociously sketched local scenes on the walls of the Millet cottage. In 1837, he went to study in Paris, where he was set at copying academic paintings. To live, even miserably, Millet turned out facile pictures in the manner of Boucher and Watteau for twenty francs each, unsigned portraits at five or ten francs. The long martyrdom came to an end when he settled in a tiny stone cottage amidst the wild and chaotic beauties of Fontainebleau. There he found his artistic mission. From this period come The Sower, The Gleaners, The Angelus, and the hoe-man.
“Can you “ look upon The Man with the Hoe without tears?” asked Elbert Hubbard in his Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Painters . Fra Elbertus addressed a generation which approached Millet’s peasant in light of current problems—the conflict of urban and rural interests, the depression of 1893, the rise of the trusts, the tensions between the debtor West and creditor East. And of course they saw the picture through the poem. These were yeasty times, and the early twentieth-century American was happy in identifying the issues on which he felt strongly with the rich gravy browns of the Barbizon painter’s palette.
High on any list of the paintings most eagerly viewed, admired, and purchased in the form of photogravure wall prints, must appear the figure painting called Breaking Home Ties, a homely but well-painted scene from nineteenth-century American rural life, done in low-keyed oils by Thomas Hovenden, an Irish-American of warm and genial personality. The picture was equally successful both as an exhibition piece and as an adornment of countless American homes. It made vivid a contemporary social situation and told a moving “human” story.