THIS picture was sketched at Ornans at the end of 1853. The artist seems to have tried suddenly to break away from his usual technique. He substituted the brightest tonality for the black backgrounds which he had hitherto affected and from which he loved to flood his pictures with light. In a sunlit room, in which the sunbeams are playing on the newly whitewashed walls, he covered the floor with a large white cloth. In a corner there stand a few canvas sacks, half-full. The scattered grain, the wicker baskets, the copper cauldrons are all of singing gold. One of the two women is sitting picking corn in a china dish; kneeling down, Zoé Courbet, the artist’s sister, dressed in a red gown, is shaking the sieve; a little boy is opening the lid of a box. The whole composition is in an absolutely unexpected key.
In spite of the deliberate banality of the composition, the laboured drawing, the deliberately ordinary form of the picture, it did not excite any indignation. It was merely treated with a rather patronizing indulgence.
“It is impossible to deny,” said Ernest Gebaüer, ” that M. Courbet has a very true feeling for certain scenes. ” ‘Les Cribleuses de Blé ‘ has a certain exact feeling for truth, but just as all truth is not meet to be said, so all truth is not meet to be painted. There is nothing sufficiently remarkable about this Cribleuses’ to make us forget the prosaic character of the subject.”
Théophile Gautier who asked nothing better than the chance of encouraging young artists was only half-convinced. “M. Courbet,” he said, “sometimes does beautiful work, simple, large and consistent from beginning to end. Unfortunately he negatives his qualities by a fatal fixed idea. However the ‘Cribleuses de Blé ‘ seems to us to give certain indications of improvement: the little girl in the red skirt who is shaking the sieve has a certain rustic grace; she has the truth of portraiture, not that of caricature.”
The prudent Paul Mantz goes a little further than this in his admiration. “It is a mistake to overlook the Cribleuses’ ” (he said) ” for there is in it a happy reminder of reality, and at the same time some bold and really skilful painting.”
The picture was shown at many provincial exhibitions, notably at Nantes, where it was bought for 3,000 francs in 1861. In 1900 it was shown in the Centenary Exhibition of French Art.