A man and a woman are reciting the Angelus, a prayer which commemorates the annunciation made to Mary by the angel Gabriel. They have stopped digging potatoes and all the tools used for this task – the potato fork, the basket, the sacks and the wheelbarrow – are strewn around them. In 1865, Millet said: "The idea for The Angelus came to me because I remembered that my grandmother, hearing the church bell ringing while we were working in the fields, always made us stop work to say the Angelus prayer for the poor departed". So it was a childhood memory which was behind the painting and not the desire to glorify some religious feeling; besides Millet was not a church-goer. He wanted to catch the immutable rhythms of peasant life in a simple scene. Here he has focused on a short break, a moment of respite.
Alone in the foreground in a huge empty plain, the two peasants take on a monumental quality, despite the small size of the canvas. Their faces are left in shadow, while the light underlines their gestures and posture. The canvas expresses a deep feeling of meditation and Millet goes beyond the anecdote to the archetype.
Perhaps that explains the extraordinary destiny of The Angelus: it triggered an unbelievable rush of patriotic fervour when the Louvre tried to buy it in 1889, was venerated by Salvador Dali, lacerated by a madman in 1932 and became a world-famous icon in the 20th century.
Oil on canvas
H. 55.5; W. 66 cm
©RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski