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 Van Gogh.

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.”

Laboureur dans un champ by Van Gogh

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 the Loan Exhibition 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

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans 
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground, 
The emptiness of ages in his face, 
And on his back the burden of the world. 
Who made him dead to rapture and despair, 
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes. 
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox? 
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw? 
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow? 
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain? 
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave 
To have dominion over sea and land; 
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power; 
To feel the passion of Eternity? 
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns 
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep? 
Down all the stretch of Hell to its last gulf 
There is no shape more terrible than this — 
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed — 
More filled with signs and portents for the soul — 
More fraught with menace to the universe. 
What gulfs between him and the seraphim! 
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him 
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades? 
What the long reaches of the peaks of song, 
The rift of dawn, the reddening of the rose? 
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look; 
Time’s tragedy is in the aching stoop; 
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed, 
Plundered, profaned, and disinherited, 
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world. 
A protest that is also a prophecy. 
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, 
Is this the handiwork you give to God, 
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quenched? 
How will you ever straighten up this shape; 
Touch it again with immortality; 
Give back the upward looking and the light; 
Rebuild in it the music and the dream, 
Make right the immemorial infamies, 
Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes? 
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands 
How will the Future reckon with this Man? 
How answer his brute question in that hour 
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores? 
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings — 
With those who shaped him to the thing he is — 
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world. 
After the silence of the centuries?

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.”

Other attendants at the Crocker exhibition included teenagers Gertrude and Leo Stein, future legendary 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.

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.”