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                   No.1 Les Glaneuses (The Gleaners) by François Millet, 1857

The Gleaners


In this depiction of the rural life of nineteenth century France, we see three female figures gathering the leftovers after the harvest. This practice – known as gleaning – was traditionally part of the natural cycle of the agricultural calendar undertaken by the poor, and was regarded as a right to unwanted leftovers. Although the practice of agricultural gleaning has gradually died away due to a number of historical factors (including industrialisation and the organisation of social welfare for the poor), there are nonetheless still people in the present day that we might understand to be gleaners.

The Gleaners
François Millet (1857)
University of Southern California

The Painting

When The Gleaners was first exhibited in 1857 it met with mixed reviews within the art world. Some commentators attacked its depiction of the rural poor, which on the one hand served as an unwelcome reminder of the marginalized poor (who were taken to be a threat to society), and on the other hand were consider the kind of grotesques who had no place within the artistic realm. The comments of one critic named Paul de Saint Victor might be taken to illustrate such an attitude:

His three gleaners have gigantic pretensions, they pose as the Three Fates of Poverty … their ugliness and their grossness unrelieved. (in Griselda Pollock, Millet, London 1977, p.17)

Part of the shock value of Millet’s painting was undoubtedly due to the fact that in the past gleaning had usually been represented in art through the Old Testament tale of Ruth the gleaner, in which Ruth is characterised as a modest and virtuous example of the way to God, and not – as it was now – a statement on rural poverty.

Other Representations of Gleaning

Gleaners by Alessandro Battaglia, Date: c.1890s, Origin: Italian. 
Original canvas dimensions unknown Gleaners Returning by G F Day (FI 1850-1869), Date: 1860, Origin: English. 
Canvas size: H: 64 cm W: 51 cm

Alessandro Battaglia (1890s)
Paul V. Galvin Library, Digital History Collection
Illinois Institute of Technology

Gleaners Returning
G. F. Day (1860)

Contemporary Gleaners

Advertisement for 'The Gleaners and I

A recent film (2000) by Belgian-born film maker Agnès Varda - Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) - takes a look at the practice of gleaning in contemporary France. Beginning with another painting of a gleaner gathering the leftovers from the harvest (Jules Breton's La Glaneuse) she provides portraits of a number of modern gleaners who have carried on the practice of salvaging waste through a variety of means according to the conditions of agribusiness and urbanization. From the descendents of Millet’s rural gleaners, who salvage the leftovers from the fields (such as the misshapen potatoes that are perfectly edible but considered worthless because difficult to market), to the gleaners of the streets, markets and rubbish bins we see that gleaning redeems waste.

French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Other gleaners shown in the film include the Russian immigrant brick mason, who has devoted a lifetime to building an ‘Ideal Palace’ from old dolls and miscellaneous debris; an artist – Louis Pons – who fixes rubbish into interesting ‘non-sculptural forms; a bird-loving eco-warrior who roams the streets in his rubber boots looking for the unwanted food that he claims to have lived on for fifteen years. The redeeming aspect of gleaning is found, too, in the numerous organizations in the United States (food banks and relief bodies) who recover unwanted food and distribute it amongst the poor and needy, and who use the term 'gleaning' to describe their activities. Examples of these organizations can be seen by following the links below:

Gleaner's Food Bank, Indiana
Gleaners Community Food Bank
Okanagan Gleaners
America's Second Harvest


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