ST. LOUIS — Jean-François Millet was a peasant, but not like the peasants he painted. His family owned land, a house and a stable and was relatively prosperous, even as industrialization and other social forces hollowed out French country life and led to widespread agrarian poverty. Although Millet was often depicted as a struggling artist and a prophet without honor, he built a successful career, his paintings sold well, and he died wealthy and widely esteemed.

A Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition, “Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí,” explores how that esteem circulated through the art world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It argues that Millet should be considered one of the essential progenitors of the avant-garde during this period, that he is just as much a source for innovative visualizations of the world as Manet or Courbet. The curators dismantle a mythologized image of Millet that emerged after his death, that of an artist devoted to the earthy and the pious, a grand artist of France who celebrated a traditional, even sentimental ideal of agricultural life.

The show is certain to be enormously popular. More than 100 paintings, pastels and drawings are on display, borrowed from public and private collections, including work by Degas, Winslow Homer, Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin and Seurat, along with the two perennial favorites mentioned in the title. The curators, who organized the exhibition with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, devote considerable space to Millet’s most devoted admirer, Vincent van Gogh, who trained himself to draw by studying and copying Millet’s work.

The exhibit more than proves its thesis: Indeed, Millet cast a long shadow over art, not just in the years immediately after his 1875 death, but well into the next century through artists such as Dalí, whose surrealist visions seem worlds away from the sowers, gleaners and reapers beloved by Millet.

More striking than the simple fact that he was influential is the complexity of that influence. Millet was not a consistent artist, with a singular vision, but several artists in one. Some of what he did was radical, much of it was sentimental. Things he did poorly, such as the rendering of faces, must have seemed faults to some of his contemporaries but daring innovations to others, especially later. He broke radically from the conventional, academic painting of his day, but his color palette is more connected to the Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age than it is to the work of painters a generation younger than he was. Artists of all types borrowed from Millet, but they repurposed his imagery for different ends and to very different effects.

Millet didn’t fit into any categories, in part because he consciously defied them. He was photographed in 1862 wearing sabots, the wooden clogs that were traditional peasant footwear. But while his dress underscored his rural origins, he also read Shakespeare, Milton, Emerson and Montaigne. He crafted his image through direct intervention with critics, suggesting what they should write and how they should describe him. Politically, he was sympathetic to the plight of the poor, especially the rural poor, but avoided signing on to the more radical ideologies of the day.

As an artist, he was particularly inventive with subject matter. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he would have learned a wide repertoire of bodily poses — languid and sensual, heroic and idealized, formal and self-aware. To these bodies, he added something novel: the working body, exhausted and deformed by labor. He painted women bending to the ground to gather up the remains of wheat after reaping; a man resting the weight of his upper body on his hoe, like a third leg; and a vineyard worker sitting sullenly on a clump of earth, entirely spent by toil, his face a mask of fatigue.

Millet was criticized sharply as a young painter for these renderings of the body, which seemed crass and vulgar to some critics. But laboring figures, particularly the ones so weary they seem almost beasts of burden, are his legacy to later painters.

Van Gogh was certainly inspired, and took up Millet’s “The Sower” almost as his own personal brand. What aspect of Millet did he honor in this appropriation? Van Gogh was religious and may have responded to the biblical implications of Millet’s design, which almost certainly referenced a parable from Mark: “And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the wayside, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth.” The passage ends with what Millet may have considered a reference to himself, the peasant who made good: “And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased.”

But it might also be the motion of the sower’s body that appealed. The sweep of the sower’s right arm, the angle of his feet, the tension in his thighs and curve of his torso create a sense of animation far larger than merely that of a man sowing seeds. The sower seems to sow the whole canvas, the paint, the design, the colors and perhaps the universe, too. His body conjures the existence of the image, surface and depth. The agitation of van Gogh’s painted surfaces, roiled with thick currents and eddies of paint, might have its spiritual origin in this lone figure casting grain upon the earth.

Other painters found the basic form of Millet’s workers compelling but balked at their misery and abjection. Winslow Homer was inspired to create his own gleaner, in 1867, but made her a formidable figure, carrying a pitchfork on her shoulder, and resting one hand defiantly on her hip. In 1889, Laurits Andersen Ring, a Danish painter with strong left-wing beliefs, painted “A Harvest Girl,” a peasant figure likely inspired by Millet, but he romanticized her, with a pink cloth attached to her hat and a delicate, almost elegant dress, standing in a field of hay that looks like golden taffeta.

That a left-wing painter softened and sentimentalized the harder-edged peasant genera of Millet shouldn’t be surprising. The dilemma remains with us today when representing the poor or marginalized: Do we represent their distress or their dignity? What are the ethics of representing them? Where is the line between observation and voyeurism, between representing another person’s condition and appropriating his or her story?

Borrowings and appropriation proliferate. Monet was perhaps attracted to Millet’s representation of haystacks. Dalí found dark sexual context to be heightened in works that feel like satires of Millet. What is the sum of all this? Millet seems to live on more through his influence than through his work.

The exhibition also makes one wonder about why we care so much about such things. Not all great painters are influential and not all influential painters were great. Influence isn’t always benign. It can, in fact, be stultifying. And often what is passed from one artist to another is relatively insignificant when it comes to the actual content or the value of the art itself. Tracing the web of inspiration and influence between artists can be a good way not to look at art.

So if you visit this exhibition, spend some time with Millet on Millet’s own terms. Yes, van Gogh produced a magnificent version of a winter landscape Millet painted in 1862, but Millet’s version stands on its own as a great painting. It shows an empty field with a low hill on the distant horizon. The earth is torn up into crude furrows, birds pick at the barren scrub, and a plow has been abandoned in the middle ground. It looks like a battlefield, desolate and blasted, and perhaps it is. Life is a struggle, and here we see that struggle represented through absence and emptiness. Nearly three decades later, van Gogh would enchant Millet’s landscape in a palette of white and blue, adding snow to Millet’s landscape, and that, too, is a great painting, but it misses almost everything Millet was trying to say.

Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí Through May 17 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis. slam.org