When I meet a laborer on the edge of a field, I stop and look at the man: born amid the grain where he will be reaped, and turning up with his plow the ground of his tomb, mixing his burning sweat with the icy rain of Autumn. The furrow he has just turned is a monument that will outlive him. I have seen the pyramids of Egypt, and the forgotten furrows of our heather: both alike bear witness to the work of man and the shortness of his days.
Jean Francois Millet is to art what Wagner is to music, or what Whitman is to poetry. These men, one a Frenchman, another a German, the third an American, taught the same gospel at the same time, using different languages, and each quite unaware of the existence of the others. They were all revolutionaries; and success came so tardily to them that flattery did not taint their native genius.
“Great men never come singly,” says Emerson.
Richard Wagner was born in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirteen, Millet in Eighteen Hundred Fourteen, and Whitman in Eighteen Hundred Nineteen. “Tannhauser” was first produced in Eighteen Hundred Forty-five; the “Sower” was exhibited in Eighteen Hundred Fifty; and in Eighteen Hundred Fifty-five “Leaves of Grass” appeared.
The reception accorded to each masterpiece was about the same; and all would have fallen flat had it not been for the gibes and jeers and laughter which the work called forth.
Wagner was arrested for being an alleged rioter; Whitman was ejected from his clerkship and his book looked after by the Attorney-General of Massachusetts; Millet was hooted by his fellow-students and dubbed the Wild-Man-of-the-Woods.
In a letter to Pelloquet, Millet says, “The creations that I depict must have the air of being native to their situation, so that no one looking on them shall imagine they are anything else than what they are.”
In his first preface to “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman writes: “The art of arts, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. * * * To speak in literature with the perfect rectitude and insouciance of the movement of animals and the unimpeachableness of the sentiment of trees in the woods and grass by the roadside, is the flawless triumph of art.”
Wagner wrote in an Essay on Art:
“The Greek, proceeding from the bosom of Nature, attained to Art when he had made himself independent of the immediate influences of Nature.
“We, violently debarred from Nature, and proceeding from the dull ground of a Heaven-rid and juristic civilization, first reach Art when we completely turn our backs on such a civilization, and once more cast ourselves, with conscious bent, into the arms of Nature.”
Men high in power, deceived by the “lack of form,” the innocent naivete as of childhood, the simple homeliness of expression, the absence of effort, declared again and again that Millet’s work was not art, nor Wagner’s “recurring theme” true music, nor Whitman’s rhymeless lines poetry. The critics refused to recognize that which was not labored: where no violence of direction was shown they saw no art. To follow close to Nature is to be considered rude by some–it indicates a lack of “culture.”
Millet, Wagner and Whitman lived in the open air; with towns and cities they had small sympathy; they felt themselves no better and no wiser than common folks; they associated with working men and toiling women; they had no definite ideas as to who were “bad” and who “good.”
They are frank, primitive, simple. They are masculine–and in their actions you never get a trace of coyness, hesitancy, affectation or trifling coquetry. They have nothing to conceal: they look at you out of frank, open eyes. They know the pains of earth too well to dance nimbly through life and laugh the hours away. They are sober, serious, earnest, but not grim. Their faces are bronzed by sun and wind; their hands are not concealed by gloves; their shirts are open to the breast, as though they wanted room to breathe deeply and full; the boots they wear are coarse and thick-soled, as if the wearer had come from afar and yet had many long miles to go. But the two things that impress you most are: they are in no haste; and they are unafraid.