In his essay The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet, Salvador Dalí interprets Jean-Francois Millet’s 1859 painting of a farmer in the fields with his wife as a depiction of male castration in the shadow of female sexuality and death.
Was this Dalí being playful? Surreal? Provocative? Or was there more to Millet’s work than first meets the incurious eye?
The Angelus is the Catholic prayer commemorating the incarnation of Christ, a good, recognizable title for a painting that inspired Van Gogh and the Impressionists. They found in the serene landscape a sense of devotion, as did the many thousands of modest families across France who hung prints of the work on their walls and turned The Angelus into one of the most widely reproduced paintings of the 19th century.
Millet draws us into the landscape at sunset. As the sky darkens, the bells toll in the church on the horizon to announce the end of the working day. The two peasants in the foreground stand over a basket of potatoes, behind them a wheelbarrow containing two filled sacks, the result of their labours.
The Angelus of Dalí
Dalí recalled passing dull afternoons at school in Figueras furtively studying Millet’s painting. He came to believe the two peasants were not gripped by spiritual peace but bound by the guilt of a dead child secretly buried in the field – a reminder, perhaps, that he had an older brother likewise named Salvador Dalí who died aged two in 1903, a year before his own birth.
The way Millet portrays the woman leaning slightly forward with her hands in prayer was perceived by Dalí as a praying mantis, the spider that eats its mate after copulation. She is about to pounce and the man with his uncertain features holds his hat over his genitals to prevent castration.
Dalí remained obsessed by The Angelus. He was so insistent that the work was an allegory of hidden meanings, an x-ray was done on the canvas and it was discovered that beneath the basket of potatoes there was a painted-over geometric shape resembling a child-sized coffin.
Now that he had shown he was correct in regard to the hidden casket, Dalí wrote The Tragic Myth of The Angelus of Millet to expound on his belief that Millet’s Angelus was not a rural scene capturing spiritual peace, but a symbol of female lasciviousness and repression. The praying mantis is a common theme in surrealist works and reveals the conflicting sense of attraction and torment within all realms of art and desire.
Homage to Millet
Salvador Dali won the heart – or pocket – of Gala Diakonova, the Russian ex-wife of French poet Paul Éluard, but their marriage was unconventional in the extreme. Gala was a nymphomaniac who was said to have slept with every fisherman in Cadaqués, Dalí home village, while Dalí lived in fear of female sexuality, impotence and castration – paranoias he explored in his work.
In his homage to Millet’s The Angelus, Dalí shows two figures that could have been carved from the rocky hills of Cadaqués. They face each other in a barren landscape with a young boy observing the scene, a symbol of childhood innocence and fears of coming adulthood – the schoolboy in class on dull afternoons in Figueras.