Lesson: Retell the Story

  • Grades: 7–12
  • Subjects: English Language Arts, Social Studies

In this lesson, students will be learning about and discussing the role artists played in depicting the working-class citizens (proletariat) of France during the mid-19th century. Students will write short responses based on prompts and historical information. Students will attempt to decipher whether an artist is being “sentimental” about their subject matter or whether they are portraying them “as they are.”


  • Students will explain their own ideas and understandings in discussion and in writing.
  • Students will use context clues to make interpretations.
  • Students will write short responses based on their observations and knowledge of the historical context in which the piece may be based on.

Vocabulary: proletariat, working class, peasant, sentimental, realist painter, appropriate


Painting depicting young woman taking a break with hands resting on top end of a pitch-fork
Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Hay-Maker [Faneuse], 1869, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of the Estate of Barbara Hoffstot Jenkins in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Phipps Hoffstot and Mr. Henry Phipps Hoffstot, Jr., © Public Domain
Painting of a woman leaning against a large rock on a hillside
Jules Bastien-Lepage, A Peasant c. 1880, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, Purchase © Public Domain
  1. Begin by having students observe the following paintings: Hay-Maker [Faneuse] (1869) by Adolphe-William Bouguereau and A Peasant (1880) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. Have your students write a short paper in which they compare the two paintings. Make sure they answer the following questions:

    • In what way are these images similar?
    • How are they different?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?

    *Students should address both form and content in their response (e.g. what each image depicts, and how they do so).

    You can have students share out some of their responses or wait until after the brief discussion of peasant life in mid-19th-century France.

  2. Now have a brief discussion of peasant life in mid-19th-century France.

    A combination of rural food shortages and the rapid growth of an unskilled urban, industrial proletariat in the early 19th century led to increasing social unrest that erupted across Europe with the Revolutions of 1848. In the wake of these political upheavals, a concern for the plight of the working classes mixed with an increasing demand for artists to depict scenes of their own time (which had begun in the 1830s) resulted in artists who began to address social concerns in their works.

    Peasant scenes became increasingly popular during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, which began in 1851, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself emperor of France. But as they became more widely accepted by the government, they lost the bite of social critique. Images of rural laborers became increasingly sentimentalized and nostalgic.

    Towards the end of the century, social consciousness began to re-enter peasant painting in the art of Vincent van Gogh. This can be seen in the dark, raw, and brutal images of peasant life depicted in The Potato Eaters (1885). As Van Gogh explains in a letter he wrote to his brother Theo, “I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes in the lamplight, have dug the earth with those very hands they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor, and how they have honestly earned their food.”

  3. Now start a discussion with the following questions (Make sure the paintings are still observable. This is also where students can refer to their short writing prompt):

    • Describe the similarities and differences between two artists’ approaches to the same subject. What do you see that makes you say that?
    • What details do you see in the paintings that give you clues about the setting?
    • What details do you see in the paintings that help you understand the characters?
    • How might artistic expression be influenced by cultural context and life experiences?
    • Do you think that the artist’s experiences may have shaped these two paintings? What do you see that makes you say that?

  4. Now, provide students with some basic background information about each artist and his work.

    William-Adolphe Bouguereau was born in the coastal city of La Rochelle, in southwestern France into a family of wine and olive oil merchants. Jules Bastien-Lepage was born in the small village of Damvillers, in northeastern France where his father grew grapes in a vineyard to support the family. Both artists attended École des Beaux-arts. Both artists continued to paint the remainder of their lives. However, Bastien-Lepage fought for a short time in the Franco-Prussian war where he was wounded before returning to his painting.

    The major differences between the two artists’ works were found in how they portrayed their subject matter. In his paintings, Adolphe-William Bouguereau offered a more sentimental vision of peasant life than Realist painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage did. The Naturalist critic Louis de Fourcaud claimed that “in his observation of nature, [Bouguereau] is always the victim of his desire to improve on it.” Other criticisms of Bouguereau were that he was overly sentimental about his subject matter. While Jules Bastien-Lepage espoused a philosophy adhering to this view: “Nothing is good but truth. People ought to paint what they know and love. I come from a village in Lorraine. I mean, first of all, to paint the peasants and landscapes of my home exactly as they are.” Bastien-Lepage often used his cousin, Marie-Adèle Robert, as a model for his paintings including A Peasant (1880) and one of his most famous works, The Haymakers (1878).

    Begin a follow-up discussion:

    • Is it okay for an artist to appropriate a story and make it their own? Why or why not?
    • Which painting do you like more? Why do you like it?

  5. Now have students observe The Sower (1850) by Jean François Millet. Have them write a short paper based on the following questions:

    Painting of a person slinging seeds from a bag while striding down a hill
    Jean François Millet, The Sower, after 1850, oil on canvas, Carnegie Museum of Art, 19th Century or Earlier Painting Purchase Fund and with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel B. Casey and Mr. and Mrs. George L. Craig, Jr. © Public Domain
    • What details do you see in the painting that gives you clues about the setting?
    • What details do you see in the painting that helps you understand the characters?
    • Do you think Millet is being sentimental about his subject matter or is he painting this peasant “as he is?” What do you see that makes you say that?
    • Do you think Millet is being sentimental about his subject matter or is he painting this peasant “as he is?” What do you see that makes you say that?

    Have students share out and perhaps debate their responses—you can divide students by those who think Millet is being “sentimental” about his subject and those who believe he is painting the peasant “as he is.” Give background information on this piece if you feel it is beneficial.

    Brief Background

    From the moment when Jean-Francois Millet’s first version of The Sower went on view in 1850, the composition has been admired and criticized as a radical work of art and a powerful political statement. Millet was among the first to depict the French peasant as a heroic archetype rather than a rustic buffoon or picturesque accessory, at a time when the French establishment feared the threat of both urban and rural popular uprisings. The painting’s artistic radicalism lies in its rejection of descriptive detail and low viewpoint, resulting in a composition of brutal simplicity.

    According to art historian Anthea Callen, “Millet intentionally transformed his human laborer into a sinewy giant of a man by elongating his proportions… Reinforced by the sower’s dominance of the pictorial space and our low viewpoint, his menacing appearance to the Parisian bourgeoisie in 1850 is thus readily explicable.”