Art and Self-reliance

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) and
Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)

Whether nature or nurture, an inherited temperament or an independent streak forged in the fires of life, self-reliance is a sine qua non of Self-realization. Two of the 19th century’s most fiery artists had self-reliance in their genes. They had the courage to flout the power of political authority, the pressure of their peers, and the lure of material success. It is a marvelous quirk of history that these two artistic giants lived at the same time and the same place, found each other, became friends and inspired and learned from one another.

Jean-François Millet and Honoré Daumier were accomplished in the practice of meditation, the ability to see deeply into the nature of reality. They were fearlessly focused on the human condition no matter how harsh that aspect of the human struggle might be. And France, in particular Paris, provided them with many scenes of heart-rending suffering.

Their steadfast devotion to depicting even the most painful aspects of what it means to be human—and their courage in not flinching from these darkest realities—showed their unfailing compassion. Such darkness had to be approached with a sense of humor if these artists were to maintain their sanity and objectivity. Daumier showed a remarkable genius to never lose sight of the absurdity of unconscious human behavior.

The influence of both of these creative geniuses on the subsequent history of art is incalculable. For example, in Salvador Dali’s own words referring to Millet’s The Angelus: “In June 1932, without advance warning of any kind or any conscious association that might have made an explanation possible, Millet’s Angelus appeared before my mind’s eye. The image was very clear and colorful. It made a deep impression on me, indeed devastated me; because, although everything in my vision of the picture precisely ‘matched’ the reproductions I have seen of it, nonetheless seemed totally transformed, fraught with so powerful a latent intent that Millet’s Angelus suddenly struck me as the most bewildering, enigmatic, compact picture, the richest in unconscious ideas, that had ever been painted.”[i]

We are not dealing with the abilities of either Millet or Daumier as artists in this essay but with something much more important without which their art would have been insipid and lifeless. That illusive quality is compassion, that ability to “feel with” their fellow human beings. Daumier for example “could always bring out man’s nobility [and] assert the dignity of men and women, whatever their material circumstances.”[ii]

Millet’s reputation rests mainly on his three genre paintings, The Angelus (1859), The Sower (1850) and The Gleaners (1857). The power inherent in these paintings flows from the compassion that Millet had for his subjects, the peasants. His pursuit of truth and beauty is always evident for those who take the time to allow it to emerge. “In Millet’s landscapes there is always human suffering as well as natural beauty.”[iii]

Art and Self-Reliance

[i]     Néret, Gilles.  Salvador Dali. London: Taschen. 2006, page 190.

[ii]     Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History. London:  Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2003, page 581.

[iii]    Ibid., page 583.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.