This post is the first one in a series of short articles devoted to naturalist paintings of rural girls. Peasant life was a frequent theme in 19th century painting. On the one hand, it expressed an interest in social issues, in particular the fate of poor toiling people. On the other hand, the rural world represented peace, in contrast with the hectic life and rebellious working class of large cities. Among academic painters, William-Adolphe Bouguereau is known for his numerous paintings of dignified peasant or gypsy girls, generally shown with a decent clothing that did often not match their sordid life. The schools of social realism and of naturalism also took an interest in rural life, but they rather showed peasants as they usually were, dirty and covered with rags.
Léon Augustin Lhermitte was born on July 31, 1844, in Mont-Saint-Père, a village along the river Marne in the the department of Aisne, east of Paris. He studied drawing, first at the “Petite École” (now École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs de Paris) under the teaching of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, then at the École des beaux-arts de Paris. He afterwards had a successful career, winning many awards and international recognition. He made an innovative use of pastels and was admired by Vincent van Gogh. He died in Paris on July 28, 1925, and since then he has fallen into oblivion. He is the great-grandfather of the French actor Thierry Lhermitte.
As with his predecessor Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), peasant life was the main topic of his paintings. See his works shown in Wikimedia Commons and the Art Renewal Center site. He was dubbed “the painter of harvesters.”
I present here my favourite among his works. It is an oil painting on canvas, 160 × 85.1 cm² (62¾ × 33½ in²). Although it certainly had an original title in French, it is known by the English one, “The Goose Girl of Mézy.” It shows a girl in rags gleaning for wheat after harvest, while she guards her flock of geese. The place of the painting is the village of Mézy-Moulins, neighbouring Lhermitte’s birthplace Mont-Saint-Père.
I found a contemporary imitation of this painting.
My next two posts in this series will deal with paintings by Jules Bastien-Lepage and George Clausen.