A man in a white shirt and jeans leans on a hoe in a field

Man with a Hoe, 1860–1862, Jean-François Millet. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 × 39 1/2 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 85.PA.114. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, there has been much discussion in the museum world about art’s social function during times of crisis, and I am reminded of disastrous moments in our past when art managed, almost miraculously, to provide a measure of comfort and good news.

Such is the story of Jean-Francois Millet’s Man with a Hoe, an icon of French realism that was nearly incinerated in the fires that devastated San Francisco following the terrible earthquake of April 18, 1906. Destroying most of the city, this catastrophe was a global media event, and amid all the coverage of the lives lost and buildings destroyed, of the ensuing humanitarian crisis and relief effort, the fate of this one painting attracted disproportionate attention.

The Man with a Hoe belonged to William H. Crocker, son of the railroad baron Charles Crocker, and it was initially presumed to have perished in the blaze that consumed his mansion on Nob Hill.

Sepia photo of a large house with gables and turrets, with nothing else nearby

Photograph of William H. Crocker’s mansion, ca. 1890. California State Library.

A view taken from the vicinity of the house on California at Jones looking down the hill by photographer Arnold Genthe.

Untitled (City Hall from California Street between Jones and Taylor Streets, San Francisco), 1906, Arnold Genthe. Cellulose nitrate negative, 2 13/16 x 5 3/4 in. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1943.407.126.1. Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund.

In late April, however, the news broke that the painting had actually been saved, thanks in large part to Crocker’s butler, Mr. Head, who went unnamed in the newspaper reports (though the American Art News acknowledged that “art lovers everywhere” owed him their thanks). A sigh of relief in the papers: “Rich Paintings are Saved. ‘Man with Hoe’ and Others Safe”!

The newspaper reports repeatedly singled out the Man with a Hoe because it was easily the most famous painting on the West Coast, and certainly one of the most renowned in the United States. Indeed, it is hard for us today to grasp the towering stature it enjoyed.

The painting had debuted in 1863 at the Paris Salon—the official, state-sponsored exhibition of contemporary art. Its unvarnished portrayal of an exhausted peasant bowed over by brutal toil scandalized viewers. Millet hadn’t prettified or sentimentalized his rural subject, and this offended urban elites, who suspected him of being some kind of socialist revolutionary.

The furor died down, however, and the Man with a Hoe disappeared from public view for some two decades. By the time it reemerged in the 1880s, after Millet’s death, critics were hailing it as one of his signature masterpieces. It was a major highlight in several loan exhibitions that consecrated the artist: first the 1883 blockbuster, “One Hundred Masterpieces from Parisian Collections,” held in the upscale galleries of dealer Georges Petit; then the 1887 Millet retrospective at the École des Beaux-Arts; and lastly the centenary exhibition of French art at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair—an event that attracted more than 30 million people.

Millet’s art simultaneously triumphed on the art market as collectors vied for his pictures, driving up prices and prompting anxiety among the French that their cultural patrimony was being sold out from under them, particularly to the insatiable Americans, flush with the riches generated during the post-Civil-War boom years.

The Man with a Hoe played its part in the frenzy, as the dizzying inflation of its market value suggests. Having originally been sold by the artist for a modest 1,500 francs in 1863, the painting made 57,000 francs at auction in 1886, was sold in 1888 for a reported 125,000 francs, and finally, in late 1890 or early 1891, was bought by William Crocker’s wife Ethel from the Paris dealer Durand-Ruel for a rumored 700,000 francs (about $125,000 USD at the time)!

By February 1891, notices were appearing in the San Francisco papers that the Millet was to be the highlight of an exhibition Mrs. Crocker was supporting to raise money for the Maria Kip Orphanage and West Oakland Home for Destitute Children. The show ran throughout March and was a great success. Critics held it up as a model for future philanthropic exhibitions and as a sign of the hunger for art education in San Francisco. Having such masterpieces as the Millet on view boded well for the cultural advancement of the West Coast.

Subsequent charity exhibitions in San Francisco similarly gave the Man with a Hoe star billing, and it commanded the national spotlight at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, heightening its status as one of the great art treasures in America.

But it was always more than this too. In its stark depiction of human labor, the painting retained its unsettling edge and sparked a great deal of social commentary. Things exploded when the Oakland poet Edwin Markham published his poem “The Man with the Hoe” along with a reproduction of the painting in the San Francisco Examiner in 1899. The plight of the working poor was a hot-button issue in Gilded Age America, and Markham struck a nerve, judging by the heated responses to his work.

Imagine if all our current political debate about social injustice and income inequality, about corporate capitalism and dwindling labor rights, about poverty and homelessness, became focused on a single work of art; that will give you some idea of the resonance that Millet’s painting had in the US at the turn of the century.

Markham saw in Millet’s laborer the tragic spectacle of humanity brutified by slavish labor, its spiritual lights snuffed out, and he hinted ominously at a great reckoning: “How will it be with kingdoms and with kings – / With those who shaped him to the thing he is – / When this dumb Terror shall reply to God / After the silence of the centuries?”

In a way, this reckoning came to San Francisco early, not in the form of social revolution or divine retribution but natural disaster. For a shocking moment, the 1906 earthquake was a great leveler, dispossessing entire swaths of the population and forcing the community to rally together as never before.

For their part, the Crockers proved vital to the reconstruction and relief efforts. However, they decided to relocate, building a new mansion just south of the city in Burlingame, while donating their ravaged property on Nob Hill to the Episcopal Church as the site of the future Grace Cathedral. Although they lost much in the fire, Mr. Head had managed to save a few choice paintings along with the Millet, notably Théodore Rousseau’s The Oaks, which made its way to the Getty in 2016 for the loan exhibition “Unruly Nature: The Landscapes of Théodore Rousseau.”

Sepia, two large trees in a field

The Oaks, ca. 1858, Théodore Rousseau. Oil on canvas, 32 3/8 × 36 1/2 × 4 1/4 in. Evan F. Lilly Memorial, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 70.87. Photo Credit: Eskenazi Museum of Art/Kevin Montague

Another rare survivor of the San Francisco disaster has found a permanent home at the Getty: Giovanni Segantini’s Spring in the Alps, which in 1906 belonged to Jacob Stern of Levi Strauss & Co. Segantini was one of many late 19th-century artists deeply impressed by Millet, a story that is currently being told in the exhibition “Millet and Modern Art,” which opened at the Saint Louis Art Museum just before the lockdown began.

A woman leads two yoked horses along a path in a field, with snowy mountains in the background

Spring in the Alps, 1897, Giovanni Segantini. Oil on canvas, 45 11/16 × 89 3/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019.3. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

When this exhibition reopens and the Man with a Hoe returns to Los Angeles afterward, I hope we can look at it, and all the other artworks entrusted to us, with fresh eyes, and never take them for granted.