The Man with the Hoe — Ethel Crocker’s world changing art collection

Ethel Crocker

In the 1890s, the walls of the proper and Victorian Ethel Crocker’s home were graced with popular paintings from the Barbizon school, the Hudson River school, and some up-and-coming Western painters. She proudly displayed Rembrandt’s “Head of a Boy,” Rousseau’s “The Oaks,” Corot’s “Dance of the Nymph” and Reuben’s “Holy Family.”

Hiding in her basement was a treasure trove of modern (French Impressionist) art. Occasionally Ethel would give a lecture on painting to an art enthusiast guest when she pulled out from her cellar three Monets (including one his Haystack series), two Pissarros, two Boudins, seven Degas, three Renoirs and one Besnard.

The William H. Crockers also owned the stunning, “Laboureur dans un champ,” by Vincent Van Gogh. They purchased the painting “Feeding Time,” by Julien Dupre, from Van Gogh’s art dealer brother Theo and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s, “Still Life with Flowers and Prickly Pears” from the legendary French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Mrs. Crocker would commission “Master of Swish” portraitist Giovanni Boldini to paint daughters Ethel and Helen.

Some other pieces in the Ethel and William Crocker art collection “Laboureur dans un champ,” by Vincent Van Gogh; “Still Life with Prickly Pears,” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir; and “Feeding Time,” by Julien Dupre

An outraged critic called her basement acquisitions, “daymares in landscape, resulting from the swallowing of camels in the effort to paint vibrations and see purple in every condition of the atmosphere.”

The prize of her collection, “The Man with the Hoe,” by Jean François Millet, from the Barbizon school, was the subject of discussion and debate for decades. It was bought for $60,000 in Paris by Ethel in 1891. On viewing the painting at a loan exhibition in San Francisco later that spring, Poet Laureate Edwin Markham was inspired to write his masterpiece of the same name. He explained his motivation:

I sat for an hour before it at the loan exhibition, sat there absorbing the majesty of its despair, the suggestion of its injustice, the tremendous import of its admonition. I saw in it the ruin of man, the ruin wrought by the powerful over the patient, of the strong masters over the silent workers.

I sat there for an hour, the pity and sorrow of this tragic figure growing upon my heart. I felt its terror, its mournful grandeur. I could not have been more deeply moved had some fearsome shape risen before me from Dante’s dark abyss.

Self-Portrait, Jean François Millet                 Poet Laureate Edwin Markham

Self-Portrait, Jean François Millet  

“The Man with the Hoe” was translating into 37 languages and earned Markham $250,000 over 33 years. In a time when unfettered laissez-faire capitalism prevailed and labor laws were virtually non-existent, the poem sprang instantly before the world’s attention and made a profound impression. It was published in 50,000 newspapers around the world; translated into 40 languages; and was hailed as “the battle-cry of the next thousand years.” There were vehement attacks in response. Crocker family business partner Collis Huntington asked, “Is America going to turn to Socialism over one poem?” Ambrose Bierce said that Markham was diligently inciting a strike against God and clamoring for repeal of the laws of nature. He called the blockbuster poem “seepage from the barnyard” and said that the poet, “made a whore of his Muse for the wage of the demagogue.” Early twentieth-century historian Mark Sullivan quipped that “the newspapers…gave as much space to ‘The Man with the Hoe’ as to prize-fights and police stories.” He added that “the clergy made the poem their text, platform orators dilated upon it, college professors lectured upon it, debating societies discussed it, schools took it up for study.” Jack London celebrated the poem as a profound statement about the crushing reality of modern industrial work.

Other attendants at the Crocker exhibition included teenagers Gertrude and Leo Stein, future celebrated art collectors. Leo later bought a reproduction of the picture and they studied it carefully at home. Gertrude would graciously accept an invitation to meet the Crockers 34 years later for lunch during a tour of San Francisco. Millet’s painting was shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and at many exhibitions since.

Sadly several hundred of the W.H. Crocker’s paintings and valuable tapestries accumulated over 18 years were destroyed in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake.

“It makes me feel most wretched indeed, really ill, when I think of the loss of my art treasures,” said Mr. Crocker.

A quick-thinking butler saved some of their priceless artworks including Rousseau’s “The Oaks,” Corot’s “Dance of the Nymphs,” a few rare tapestries and Jean François Millet’s “The Man With the Hoe.”

Click here to read the poem