Anthea Callen comments on the scale of Millet’s Sower :
“By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept of the human machine had taken a new turn in the light of advancing industrialization and incipient mass production….That the theme of labor and the nascent ‘human motor’ should begin to emerge as a European phenomenon in the later 1840s is no coincidence, not only in respect of industrial progress but of the spread of European imperialism, agitation against slavery and worker exploitation, and the new self-awareness of labor itself in the run-up to the revolutions of 1848….[T]he two versions of his monumental Sower of 1850, demonstrate their pictorial engagement in the political as well as physical senses with contemporary issues of labor power.
Comparing the physique of Miller’s Sower with sculpted Antique figures is instructive: Millet intentionally transformed his human laborer into a sinewy giant of a man by elongating his proportions to almost nine heads. If we take the commonly agreed classical ideal of the male figure as 7.5 (that is, the length of the head divides 7.5 times into his total body height) and an average of 1.7 m (68 ½ ins) tall, this makes Millet’s powerful Sower in the region of six feet eight inches or 2.04 meters tall. Reinforced by the sower’s dominance of the pictorial space and our low viewpoint, his menacing appearance to the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1850 is thus readily explicable.”
Anthea Callen, “Man or Machine: Ideals of the Laboring Male Body and the Aesthetics of Industrial Production in Early Twentieth-Century Europe,” in Fae Brauer and Anthea Callen, eds., Art, Sex and Eugenics: Corpus Delecti (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 152.
Alexandra Murphy explains the significance of the sower subject and notes its critical reception:
“Sowing is the penultimate act of faith in man’s battle to earn his daily bread, for potentially edible grain is flung to the winds, in the hope of harvests far beyond the control of the sower. In Catholic France, the sower often began his task by crossing himself, or by forming a cross with a handful of grain flung into the air in two strokes. After reaping, sowing is the most frequently reproduced agricultural activity and, among countless prototypes, the illustrations for October in the Très Riches Heures of the Duke de Berry, depicting a similar sower – capped, wearing leggings, and holding his seed bag in his left hand – is often suggested as a source for Millet. But as with so many of his images, The Sower is more likely to have evolved from the conflation of several well-studied visual memories.”
“When The Sower was exhibited, it attracted a considerable amount of attention, with at least nineteen critics commenting on it in their reviews. For the most part, reactions were favorable, although the critics differed widely in their understanding of the picture. De Chenevières, an important conservative critic, admired the ‘beauty, poetry and grace’ of the figure, while Clément de Ris praised the picture as ‘an energetic study full of movement.’ The thick, heavily worked surface disconcerted most of the critics, and the otherwise favorably impressed [Théophile] Gautier described the technique as ‘Millet’s trowel scrapings.’ But even more than technique and style, the critics felt compelled to address the image itself: almost to a man, they were struck by ‘the strangeness and power of the figure,’ although after acknowledging the inescapable presence of the sower, they remained uncertain what he represented. Fizelière saw a religious dignity in the figure who stood ‘Alone, in the middle fo bare and newly turned ground, as if he understood the grandeur of his mission,’ Sabatier-Ungher saw ‘the Modern Demos,’ (the Greek personification of the common man), where Desplaces felt Millet had ‘vilified the sower.’”
Alexandra R. Murphy, Jean-François Millet. Exhibition catalogue (Boston, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, 1984), pp. 31 & 32.
The Sower, 1851 (lithograph, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)