Jon Doyle
24 November 2021

Paintings, Peasants & Philanthropy

Jon Doyle

24 November 2021 | Minute read

Jean-François Millet’s The Peasant Family is often held as a quintessential example of his rural, socially conscious depictions of the French peasantry. A husband and wife stand shoulder to shoulder, their child before them with limbs outstretched to hold them closer still. A ‘sublime man and his stolid spouse,’ opined British painter Walter Sickert, who described how the figures stared from the painting ‘with all the gravity and symmetry of two caryatids.’ The child represents ‘a baby Samson,’ Sickert said, ‘essay[ing] the strengths of the pillars of his house.’ Forget the muted colours and humble dressings, this was a family of Biblical strength and importance. Archetypal figures of a virtuous, dignified population.

The child could have been Jean-François himself. Hailing from the village of Gruchy near the Normandy coast, Millet left his initial studies to help on the family farm. ‘He began to work beside his father and the hands,’ writes biographer Alfred Sensier, ‘to mow, make hay, bind the sheaves, thresh, winnow, spread manure, plow, sow.’ It was a childhood immersed in the peasant life which would later capture his artistic attention. Though Millet headed to Cherbourg to study painting, then Paris to work under Paul Delaroche at the École des Beaux-Arts, his attachment to the countryside never waned. He eventually settled in Barbizon within the Fontainebleau Forest and devoted much of his career to a new Realism. But unlike others in the Barbizon school, whose work focused exclusively on the landscape, Millet’s attention turned to the people making a living in those environments, capturing both the hardship and dignity of the working life.

The Davies Family

The Peasant Family was bought in 1911 by Margaret Davies, granddaughter of Victorian industrialist David Davies, a man whose rise to prominence had echoes of Millet’s own. Davies started life working the family land but set his sights higher, building bridges, railways and roads before becoming a driving force of the coal industry in the Rhondda valley and the construction of Barry docks. By the time of his death in 1890, Davies’s Ocean Coal Co. Ltd. would be the most profitable coal company in south Wales, and Barry eventually would become the world’s leading exporter of coal.

Margaret inherited this great wealth along with her brother David and sister Gwendoline. The three became known for their charity, funding public health initiatives like efforts to eradicate tuberculosis alongside various cultural institutions. David supported the National Library of Wales and Aberystwyth University, while Margaret and Gwendoline made donations to the National Museum of Wales. The sisters soon began their own art collection, amassing works by the likes of Turner, Monet and van Gogh, as well as several by Millet, including ‘The Peasant Family’. After working in a canteen at the front during the First World War, they returned to Wales with a renewed desire to aid the men who had experienced such horror. They bought Gregynog Hall in Montgomeryshire and transformed it into a hub of creative endeavour, hoping to enrich the lives of the Welsh people and elevate the country’s artistic standing. The move allowed them to fold their interest in fine art into their philanthropic urges. To display sophistication while benefiting wider society. ‘The young Davies[es] were very much aware that they owed their wealth to the labours of ordinary Welsh people,’ reads their biography on the Gregynog website, ‘and at quite an early stage came to feel that they had a duty to “give something back”.’

Jean-François Millet, The Peasant Family

How the Rich Can Save the World

The Davies family was far from unique in their giving. Led by the American ‘robber barons’—ruthless industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford—the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a boom time for philanthropy. The various tax benefits were no doubt attractive, but it was the control of public image that lent giving its true appeal. Whether driven by cynical calculation or genuine unease with their privilege, elites used philanthropy to justify their wealth, simultaneously easing their own consciences and placating the general population working beneath them.

In pushing the idea ‘capitalism is or can be charitable in and of itself’, philanthropy, according to Mikkel Thorup, helps bolster the capitalist system. Thorup rephrases a maxim of a General Motors president to illuminate the inference at the heart of what he calls philanthrocapitalism: ‘What is good for the rich is good for the poor (but presumably not vice versa).’ The idea is a key underpinning of contemporary capitalist hegemony. Capitalism helps develop education and eradicate disease, ergo it must be the best and only viable system. But just as philanthropy is only possible because of capitalism’s hierarchies and inequalities, so too is it only required because of them. In furthering the pretence that their work is uniquely positive and compassionate, philanthrocapitalists seek (intentionally or otherwise) to conceal the role capitalism plays in the very problems they address. Theirs is a capitalism recast as a noble, curative force, wielded by wealthy messiahs and directed toward the downtrodden masses. A version of the world in which the robber barons are not robbers at all, but, as Thorup puts it, ‘the poor’s best and possibly only friend.’

This worldview is peddled by philanthropists the world over, often with a veneer of idealistic euphemism or hand-wringing charm. But on occasion someone says the quiet part aloud, perhaps none so loudly as Matthew Bishop in his 2008 manifesto Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. ‘If the rich do not take on this responsibility,’ Bishop writes, speaking of a need to donate to charitable causes, ‘they risk provoking the public into a political backlash against the economic system that allowed them to become so wealthy.’ The sentence reveals the truth behind the book’s subtitle. The act of ‘saving the world’ does not entail working towards a utopia free of disease and suffering. Rather, it actively opposes change, a conservation project to save the world in its current state, and with it the system which enables the powerful to accumulate wealth unabated.

The sentiment behind Bishop’s words is rooted deep in the history of the West. Anne O’Brien’s Philanthropy and Settler Colonialism describes how the British used ideas of kindness and charity to justify their imperialist conquests. King George III instructed Captain Cook to ‘take possession’ of Australia, though only ‘with the consent of the natives,’ who he was to ‘endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship and alliance with.’ Part of this cultivation involved philanthropy, gestures which carried an expectation of reciprocity (give now, that is, to take later). Worse, pitching their actions as benevolent allowed the British to justify their racist views of superiority. ‘Indigenous peoples’ ambiguous responses to the gifts and the opportunities for trade offered,’ O’Brien writes, ‘confirmed their status as “savage”.’

Anand Giridharadas’s appropriately titled Winners Take All argues this exploitative relationship sits at the heart of all philanthropy. Giridharadas quotes Sean Hinton, a former advisor for McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and mining group Rio Tinto and now director of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, who describes philanthropy as ‘Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It.’ Far from masking the violence of colonialism, philanthropy is its direct extension. Representing a ‘continuation,’ Hinton says, ‘of the colonial, imperial arrogance of the enlightened white man with money and science.’ But more than a foolish white saviour complex, philanthropy serves to protect the assets of its practitioners. ‘The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth,’ writes Edgar Villanueva in Decolonizing Wealth, ‘and that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen, once through the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labour, and the second time, through tax evasion.’

Giridharadas holds up the Sackler family as a leading example of this insidious tactic. The founders of Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers developed and aggressively marketed addictive pain medication, driving the current opioid epidemic in the United States. Hundreds of thousands have and continue to die from overdoses, but the Sackler family, one of the richest in the country, insulated its reputation via philanthropy. They funded homeless shelters, theatres, aquariums and libraries, as well as organisations which “encourage[d] the healthy development of youth by reducing high-risk behaviours, such as substance abuse.” The OxyContin train continued parallel to this work, and Purdue Pharma even marketed rescue medications and addiction treatments, profiting from the fight against the problem they themselves had created.

The arts constituted a major strand of the Sacklers’ giving, one especially useful in laundering their reputation. The family made significant donations to museums, galleries and universities around the world, and their name came to be as associated with the arts as pharmaceuticals (New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has an entire Sackler wing). The scale of the Sacklers’ funding went far beyond that of the Davies’ but the parallels between the two families highlight the homogeneity of the business. Profiteers from often lethal industries who reframed their legacy via an engagement with the arts.

Ethical Funding?

As Western society slowly edges toward a reckoning with its colonial past, the spotlight has turned on cultural institutions. Groups such as ‘Decolonize This Place’ and ‘BP or not BP?’ have challenged museums and galleries to reconsider links to partners and trustees who made their money via exploitation, raising awareness of how both reputations and wealth can be laundered through such relationships. The protests present a troubling double bind for institutions. Just as philanthropy promotes capitalism as the only viable system, so too does it present itself as the only realistic model for successful cultural institutions. With the survival of many organisations dependent on private funding, unethical fundraising can be a reluctant necessity. The power structures of wealth are brought into relief, illustrating how philanthropy not only fails to challenge inequalities but reinforces them. You either do it our way, or you don’t do it at all.

There is also the question of defining ‘unethical’ funding. Is there a scale of philanthropists from benevolent to malevolent? Where to position the Davies family? The Sacklers? To suggest there are ‘good’ philanthropists is to assume the exploitative side of wealth accumulation is a character flaw of a ‘bad’ minority, not an inherent part of the process. Giridharadas quotes Italian philosopher Chiara Cordelli’s distinction between ‘active committers’ and ‘passive permitters’ of harm. Groups like the Sacklers, who directly benefited from the conditions they themselves had made, fit into the former category. The Davies sisters, two generations removed from the actual wealth accumulation, perhaps the latter. But Cordelli argues each version performs the same two moral acts. ‘Alongside the act of helping was a parallel act of acceptance.’ She likens the passive permitters to owners of a painting that is revealed to be stolen. The theft might have occurred long before their purchase, the owners oblivious to any crime, but if the history of the object is revealed and the rightful owners identified, ‘you have an obligation to return it to them,’ Cordelli argues. ‘Maybe even to apologize […] acknowledging that you have something that has been the fruit of that injustice.’

In bequeathing much of her collection to Amgueddfa Cymru, Margaret Davies went some way to such an acknowledgement. But though such actions offer some atonement, they cannot justify the continuation of the model. Not least because there is no public control over how and when such atonement is offered. A system which leaves us, as Naomi Klein describes in No is Not Enough, ‘looking to the billionaire class to solve the problems we used to address with collective action and a strong public sector.’ Meaningful change is impossible under such conditions.

Philanthrocapitalism is always performed according to the terms of the wealthy and is inherently rooted in the very systems which drive inequality and suffering. When Sickert described the couple in Millet’s ‘The Peasant Family’ as standing “with all the gravity and symmetry of two caryatids,” he touched upon a fitting characterisation for the working classes within the capitalist system. Silent objects left to shoulder the weight of the structure built above their heads. For all of its promises, philanthropy will never alleviate this load, for it itself depends upon those very pillars for support.

Jon Doyle is a writer based in Port Talbot, south Wales. He holds various degrees from Cardiff University and a PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University. Find out more about his work on Twitter @Jon_Doyle or via his website:


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