Golden Age Artists

Artistic expression of agrarian experience over the centuries has varied like the seasons. Medieval fatalism shown in the solitary religious renderings of agrarian toil gave way to the colorful renderings of joyful communal harvest and other farming endeavor. Greater appreciation of peasant ways emerged during the Renaissance was reflected in new styles of art and literature. The lavish sixteenth century canvases and detailed drawings of Brueghel and his popular imitators show lively scenes with mowers, binders, gleaners, and carters working concurrently. The division of tasks would have normally been done in a sequence, but the scene allows the artist to more naturally depict peasants as real persons who frolic and dine as well as reap and rake. As if storytelling through paint, Brueghel and his successors show workers again proliferating throughout the countryside as had been the case prior to the calamitous fourteenth century of plague and want.

Considerations of more favorable peasant experience through the harvest motif diminish, however, in seventeenth century European art and literature. The German peasant revolts and regional wars across Europe unleashed after the Reformation—often shown as menacing depictions of workers with upraised sickles and scythes, led genteel patrons of the arts to commission calmer representations of country life. The peasantry had become a force to be reckoned with, or at least redirected in energy in order to advance social tranquility and stability. Art that engendered public order and upper class privilege rather than cultural angst led to serenely bucolic works notable for the peculiar absence of rural residents. Yet without these laborers tending the very herds and fields shown in such paintings, no bounty would sustain the population.

John Constable, after Jacob Ruisdael (1648),  The Wheatfield  (1818);  Print Collectors Quarterly  7:2 (February, 1917)

John Constable, after Jacob Ruisdael (1648), The Wheatfield (1818); Print Collectors Quarterly 7:2 (February, 1917)

Harvest time canvases by Dutch Golden Age master Peter Paul Rubens often show more livestock than people, while some Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings and drawings like The Wheatfield (1648)—meticulously studied and copied by John Constable, depict bountiful fields tended by unseen hands. In van Ruisdael’s somber View of the Grainfields (c. 1670), the view is illumined by moonlight, a hint of hope in an otherwise shadowy landscape, with a distant cathedral hinting at reliance upon divine grace. The appearance of landscapes and certain plants and creatures might well foster artist intentions to inspire and illuminate. To be sure, Calvinist sermons heard by Dutch Masters may well have influenced their worldviews. But there is much to suggest from studying primary documents, period literature, and the paintings themselves that artists and those who first viewed their works saw real and imagined landscapes as sources of natural beauty and love as much as reflections for spiritual edification.

Shakespeare, Sickles, and Scythes

A few years ago my longtime Tri-City photographer friend, John Clement, and I found ourselves in the pleasant Hessian village of Schotten, Germany, about forty miles north of Frankfurt, a. M. We were helping to lead a tour of that scenic region and I had special interest in learning about farming practices there past and present. John, who is National Photography Hall of Famer, was quite taken by the colorful exhibits in the towns “Homeland” museum which presented information on rural life in past centuries. Liana Vardi (1993) has documented that since the Early Middle Ages gleaning was one of several essential steps in efficient communal harvest for lord or landowner. The process included cutting grain with sickles (or scythes more commonly after the twelfth century), tying and piling sheaves to dry and gather, gathering lost stalks with rakes, and finally carting the crop by wagon to a barn or shelter. Threshing the stalks to remove the nutritious kernels might take place soon after harvest or during winter.

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

John Clement, Early Modern Harvest Art and Tools Exhibition (2014); Vogelsberg Heimatmuseum; Schotten, Germany

That evidence of gleaning in the biblical sense is little known in medieval art or literature is not as much a matter of peasants understanding the ancient concept as the era’s cultural paradigm of communal sufficiency. Although substantially denied prospect of improved economic conditions, serfs nevertheless could expect the essentials of shelter and sustenance, and access to nearby pasture “commons” provided forage for cattle and sheep. Families and small groups could roam “open” forests beyond manorial fields to gather wood for fuel and gather berries, mushrooms and other resources to supplement diets.

Disruption of European cultural patterns during the fourteenth century took place in the wake of periodic crop failures from 1313 to 1321 due to changes in climate, followed by the Black Death of the 1340s. Famine, plague, and pestilence ravaged throughout the continent to render apocalyptic significance to reaper and scythe as harbingers of death, metaphors since ancient times for widespread loss of life. These conditions raised new considerations during the Middle Ages of mortality and the human condition in this present life. The “bending sickle compass [swath]” of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 119 claims all mortal lovers as if stalks of ripened grain, and elsewhere the bard uses sickle and scythe (e.g., Sonnets 100 and 106) to represent Time.

Ruth and Boaz, Past and Present

There is much interest these days in “back to the land” efforts to reconnect folks with country life. It is encouraging to see examples here some rural communities in our area of sufficient revival evident in thriving local schools and main streets. Art historians remind us that life back in “the good old days” was not always that “good” for lots of folks, nor especially “sustainable.”  Writings of medieval theologians confirm the view of many present-day researchers that European peasants were practitioners of extractive farming methods who were often deemed unworthy by the Church for anything other than servile labor to await reward in the hereafter. In the main, depictions of harvest from the Middle Ages do not show happy workers gathered together in fields of plenty. Reapers and gleaners still seen in the surviving stained glass, frescoes, and bas reliefs of great European cathedrals typically show a single individual or pair of field workers armed with sickle or scythe in tall, thin stands of grain. The expressionless figures are typically cast in larger theological “Labors of the Months” narratives as emblems of Christian suffering intended to impress parishioners with the need to toil ceaselessly throughout the year as sinful consequence of humanity’s fallen state.

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome,  History of the Holy Bible  (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome, History of the Holy Bible (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

For three millenia the Old Testament Book of Ruth has been synonymous with the abiding theme of divine deliverance associated with gleaning, and served to inspire depictions of her and Boaz throughout the centuries from the vivid images of medieval illuminated manuscripts to the modern dreamy reverie of Surrealist Marc Chagall. The annual harvest of feudal times made possible the exchange of peasant labor for manorial protection and provision. Notions of upward mobility in moral or imaginative terms, therefore, are not found in the French Song of Roland, Slavic Tale of Igor’s Campaign, sermons of St. Francis, or visions of Hildegard of Bingen. (Hildegard did write, however, of the praiseworthy qualities of ancient grains like spelt and emmer.) The very constraints of social stratification fostered a degree of egalitarianism among serfs, who represented some 90% of the population, which significantly altered ancient Judeo-Christian concepts of gleaning intended to benefit the poor.

Rural Art Exemplars Through Time and Place

There is risk in discussing times and trends in art since masters in any age may not conform to prevailing approaches, and certainly change styles subject matter interests over their lifetimes. Moreover, the multicultural experiences of many great artists defy their association with a single country or national art movement. Camille Pissarro, for example, was born on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies to Jewish parents, lived most of his adult life in France, but was a Danish citizen! Such enriching influences have contributed manifold perspectives in agrarian art and literature which inform understandings of the condition of the land and the spirit of its dependent humanity.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov,  Time of Toil—The Reapers  (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Time of Toil—The Reapers (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The pantheon of eminent national artists and authors who created masterpieces on agrarian themes includes Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Millet, and Émile Zola; Leo Tolstoy and Russian masters Alexey Venetsianov and Grigoriy Myasoyedov; Thomas Hardy, John Linnell, and Lea Anna Merritt of Great Britain; and Americans Fannie Palmer, Willa Cather, and Thomas Hart Benton. Study of Western culture through the centuries also reveals that artistic interpretations of rural experience have been variously shaped by the religion and predispositions of painter, author, and patron. While depictions of harvests generally retain noble aspects across times and cultures, they also can serve to realistically show other harsh realities of rural life, or use the power of symbols like sickles and the gleaning poor has also been used to advance political or social causes. Consideration of art and works of fiction and literary-nonfiction through a critical lens informs understandings of the ancient, feudal, and early modern past in ways that also influence contemporary creative expression and meaning making.

Identification of this unifying theme has had limited treatment in scholarly literature. Of over 45,000 entries in the authoritative thirty-four-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Art (2011), for example, no subject headings are included for agrarian, agriculture, rural, or rustic. A similar conspicuous absence is any reference to harvesting, the essential endeavor that variously occupied the overwhelming majority of the populace in the ancient world, in the monumental Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2007). The Smithsonian Art Museum’s inventory of world art, however, contains approximately 500 entries with titles that include the terms “harvest,” “threshing,” and “reaping.” (Dozens of others include words like “Ceres,” “gleaner,” and “grain.”) The Union Index of English Verse (2018), substantially drawn from the Early Modern (c. 1500-1900) period, contains reference to these and other related terms in the title, first, or last line of 745 separate works.


Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

When Bill Murray Met Jules Breton: “Another Chance Every Day”

On a recent train trip through Chicago, I found myself with a couple extra hours between trains at the city’s main railroad terminal. I glanced at a city map and saw that I was only about a ten minute walk from the Chicago Art Institute so braved a brisk wind to take a look. The CAI is well known for its priceless collection of Monet’s Grainstack paintings (more on that someday soon), but what struck me were several images about harvest time gleaning. These evocative images attest to the widespread rural poverty of past centuries and how grateful we can be for many of the conveniences we take for granted.

Given many poor women’s dire circumstances in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, they periodically sought to reaffirm the ancient privileges of gleaning. But so did less scrupulous miscreants who sometimes gleaned by night in harvested fields where crops had not yet been completely gathered. King Henry II of France’s Edict of 1554 had blamed, “…a number of scoundrels, both from the city and suburbs and hinterland, [who] make use of such permission and form gangs, and under the pretense of gleaning, steal the sheaves, wheat, and cereals left on the fields….” In these cases, gleaning was no longer an incidental act of charity, but an offense that could significantly threaten crop yields for worker and owner, as well as tithes for the church, seigneurial dues, and taxes for the state. For these reasons, stricter laws were enacted to regulate gleaning, especially in the emerging free market economies of France, Germany, and England.

Jules Breton,  Song of the Lark  (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

Jules Breton, Song of the Lark (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

These conditions suggest other interpretations of scenes sympathetically depicting the saintly qualities of ordinary people in solemn nineteenth century master works by Realists like Millet, Breton, and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. These artists came of age during a time when European social revolutions spawned a new creative and idealistic spirit. The emergent social awareness and sense of individual dignity regardless of class-bound constraint is reflected in the period’s art and literature that challenged prevailing academic notions of classical aesthetics and subject matter.

The enduring popularity of these depictions is evident in Breton’s timeless Song of the Lark (1884) which garnered the most votes a half-century later in a public poll conducted, ironically, for the 1933-1934 Chicago’s futuristic Century of Progress International Exposition. The painting continues to inspire. Actor Bill Murray credits it with pulling him from despair at a time of particular disappointment early in his career: “I saw it that day and I just thought, ‘There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance.’ I think that gave me some sort of feeling that… you get another chance every day.” Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) may be the genre’s apotheosis, and like his other harmonious compositions shows masterful use of soft forms to portray field laborers, inviting viewers to thoughtful reflection. Claude Monet’s Impressionist canvases of ponds, groves, and gardens inspired early twentieth century French artists Camille Pissarro (who taught both Gauguin and Cézanne), Pierre-August Renoir, and George Seurat to depict forms like sheaves and stacks of grain in highly individualistic patterns of light and color without Romantic moralizing. Monet’s style also greatly influenced Vincent Van Gogh whose synthesis of religious belief with the rustic wonder of the French countryside led to his completion of thirteen large expressionistic paintings of writhing grain fields in thickly layered bright colors that were his final works. 

The Abiding Significance of Agrarian Art

On numerous occasions in recent months I’ve been reminded how by the names of notable humanitarian groups like Second Harvest and Food for the Hungry that “gleaning” remains a highly relevant endeavor for our time. Although often associated with bygone days, gleaning has never been more relevant in this day when so much food goes to waste while hunger still stalks substantial numbers of the population. Hats off to the many dedicated workers in these organizations who devote themselves to collecting excess produce, and to farmers across the country who partner with these groups to provide these valuable commodities.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

Universal themes of deliverance from want through rural toil and fellowship have been variously represented throughout history through images of reaping and gleaning in art and literature. The Bible and ancient writings by Homer and Virgil include numerous references to sickle and sheaf, which are also graphically depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings and Near Eastern mosaics. Representations of them continued to appear in stirring, numinous form for the next two millennia. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Valley of the Arno (1473), which shows distant Florentine fields from a mountain slope vantage, is considered the first landscape done for nature’s sake, though evidence of humanity’s presence is limited in Leonardo’s drawing to distant stone ramparts and partitioned fields.

But development of landscape as an artistic and literary theme was slow to develop in Europe and only in the mid-1500s do graphic works by Titian, Domenico Campagnola, and other Italian masters appear as idealistic countrysides with human figures to enliven such subjects. Images of scythe-wielding harvesters first appear in Late Roman Era sculpture and wall decoration, and as illustrations for religious works in the Early Middle Ages.

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Sixteenth century Flemish painters and printmakers Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lodewijk Toeput were among the first artists to depict harvest scenes. Such masterpieces as Brueghel’s celebrated The Harvesters (1565) significantly contributed to the validity of agrarian landscape as a prominent theme for painting and drawing. Farmer-poet Thomas Tusser, Brueghel’s English contemporary, composed A Hundreth Good Pointes of Good Husbandrie, first printed in London in 1557, to express the country year in rhyming couplets for a long poem that contributed to agrarian literature as an accepted genre.  In every country, as with most every artist and author, the function of art as expression of meaning and beauty is different and changes in manifold ways over time.