April 18.—Went out three or four miles to the house of Quincy Shaw, to see a collection of J. F. Millet’s pictures. Two rapt hours. Never before have I been so penetrated by this kind of expression. I stood long and long before “the Sower.” I believe what the picture-men designate “the first Sower,” as the artist executed a second copy, and a third, and, some think, improved in each. But I doubt it. There is something in this that could hardly be caught again—a sublime murkiness and original pent fury. Besides this masterpiece, there were many others, (I shall never forget the simple evening scene, “Watering the Cow,”) all inimitable, all perfect as pictures, works of mere art; and then it seem’d to me, with that last impalpable ethic purpose from the artist (most likely unconscious to himself) which I am always looking for. To me all of them told the full story of what went before and necessitated the great French revolution—the long precedent crushing of the masses of a heroic people into the earth, in abject poverty, hunger—every right denied, humanity attempted to be put back for generations—yet Nature’s force, titanic here, the stronger and hardier for that repression—waiting terribly to break forth, revengeful—the pressure on the dykes, and the bursting at last—the storming of the Bastile—the execution of the king and queen—the tempest of massacres and blood. Yet who can wonder?
Could we wish humanity different? Could we wish the people made of wood or stone? Or that there be no justice in destiny or time?
The true France, base of all the rest, is certainly in these pictures. I comprehend “Field-People Reposing,” “the Diggers,” and “the Angelus” in this opinion. Some folks always think of the French as a small race, five or five and a half feet high, and ever frivolous and smirking. Nothing of the sort. The bulk of the personnel of France, before the revolution, was large-sized, serious, industrious as now, and simple. The revolution and Napoleon’s wars dwarf’d the standard of human size, but it will come up again. If for nothing else, I should dwell on my brief Boston visit for opening to me the new world of Millet’s pictures. Will America ever have such an artist out of her own gestation, body, soul?
—From Walt Whitman’s journal of 1881