Jean Francois Millet, who painted The Winnower, was a founder of the Barbizon school along with Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Theodore Rousseau, so named on account of the area in France where they worked. His paintings and etchings were mainly of peasants at work in the countryside. Amongst the most famous are The Gleaners (1857), The Angelus 1859-60 and The Sower 1850. It is possible to read Millet’s work in terms of the social and political situation of the time. In 1848, when this particular work was painted, there was a revolution. Could the winnower be sifting the contents of society of that day? Actually, Millet himself seems to seek out subjects detached from political commentary. Instead his focus is on rural life, its dignity and hardships expressed in particular figures. Indeed, the gleaners in the painting of the same name are literally cut off pictorially from the background scene of social stratification with agricultural labourers and those overseeing them. The language he uses seems to be biblical, which is what critics often wrote about at the time, referring to the story of Ruth in the case of the Gleaners, though Millet himself tended to understate the connection in his works. The Sower also seems to be invested with powerful symbolism from the parable of Jesus. This might be because anyone who comes from the Biblical text or with Jesus’ parables and teaching foremost in mind will be struck by the connections. It is a perspective shared with Millet’s first viewers in 19th century France, for whom the bible was so familiar and the countryside an even more living reality.
Looking at the winnower in this painting is a way in to the theme of the third Sunday of Advent. In John the Baptist’s description of the coming Jesus, fire is mentioned twice, in the sense of the Spirit and of the burning of the chaff. It is a dramatic picture of the Messiah’s coming. But, actually, in reality, Jesus surprised John. Jesus the Winnower is more like the figure in this painting, someone earthy, of quiet intent, who toils carefully, slowly and patiently to sift the precious wheat and ensure none is lost.