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.

Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and Agrarianism (Part 2 of 2)

Reconciliation and The Threshing Machine

 Among the World Columbian Exposition’s most magnificent paintings was Russian master Grigoriy Myasoyedov’s monumental Time of Toil—The Reapers, identified at the fair as Harvest-Time. Nearly nine feet wide and covering forty-five square feet of canvas, the expansive painting and gilded wood frame may have been the largest at the exhibition, and appropriately dominated one of the Palace of Fine Arts’ four large halls as a gesture of cultural goodwill from Tsar Nicholas II’s personal collection. One marvels not only at such immense treasures, but at the time, expense, and labor needed for crating and secure global transport. Harvests and other agrarian scenes painted by artists with personal experience in farming like John Linnell and Parisian Albert Gabriel Rigolot (1862-1932), who had instructed Evans and the “Utah Missionaries,” depicted the new order in realistic scenes that were at once natural and humane.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov,  Time of Toil—The Reapers  (detail, 1887),   Wikimedia Commons

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Time of Toil—The Reapers (detail, 1887), Wikimedia Commons

Linnell’s Storm at Harvest, which was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and Rigolot’s The Threshing Machine, painted that same year but not shown in Chicago, both exemplified prospect of an emerging cultural consilience in the aftermath of what agricultural historians term the Second Agricultural Revolution. (The first took place with medieval farmers’ introduction of crop rotations to increase soil fertility and grain yields.) To be sure, the workers in Rigolot’s painting appear too intent on their duties to sing harvest folksongs, which probably could not have been heard above the din of the thresher anyway. But as with the group scenes in the 1870s Harvest Time pictures by William Hahn and William Rogers, they still work together. In Rigolot’s canvas a woman helps to feed a similar stationary thresher, and the team likely eats together, converse throughout the day, and are probably grateful for the mechanical marvel that spares so many weeks of toilsome flailing. The scene is vibrant from the artist’s admirable talent for rendering the soft, hazy effects of summertime heat, and balances a spirit of innovation with the adjacent timbered farmhouse and barn where as many animals are seen as in any Barbizon painting.

Albert Gabriel Rigolot,  The Threshing Machine; Loiret  (1893), Wikimedia Commons

Albert Gabriel Rigolot, The Threshing Machine; Loiret (1893), Wikimedia Commons

Similar views are in Albert Kappis’s many German harvest works like Farmyard Threshing Machine (1885) which shows no less than twenty people—men and women feeding the enormous wooden Dreishmaschine while children play among chickens, turkeys, and geese. One can almost hear the whine of pulleys and belts as an elderly man stokes the engine’s fire with a shovelful of coal. The overall wholesomeness of paintings by Linnell, Rigolot, and Kappis reveal a hopeful oeuvre in which agrarian landscapes with agricultural innovations need not represent contradictory values, but complementary ones. Their works also represented an important middle way between the aesthetic tensions of an age that divided critics and commoners into rural and urban, traditional and progressive, mystical and visionary.

Albert Kappis,  Farmyard Threshing Machine  (1885),   Columbia Heritage Collection

Albert Kappis, Farmyard Threshing Machine (1885), Columbia Heritage Collection


World’s Fair Journalism and Sculpture             

Popular Iowa journalist and novelist Alice French (1850-1934), who authored many stories under the pen name Octave Thanet, visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 for two “Sketches of American Types” Scribner’s Magazine articles, illustrated by Pennsylvanian A. B. Frost 1851-1928), “The Farmer in the North” (March, 1894) and “The Farmer in the South” (April, 1894). Frost was colorblind which may have enhanced his notable use of grayscale for photorealistic art as seen in A New England Type, his tender Scribner’s depiction of a young girl in a harvest field who appears to deliver a lunch pail to an elderly worker.

French’s approach as a local colorist emphasized rural custom and dialect in sentimental prose that described various farm folk she found visiting the fair:

Sunshine seemed to fit her; for she was a comfortable and ample presence in holiday black, brightened by the red rose in her bonnet and the pink on her comely cheeks. She listened to a monotone of complaints of the crowd and the weather and the restaurant fare...; she was sympathetic but she was unflinchingly cheerful. I perceived that here was one of those homely saints who hide their halo under a zest for laughter…. I know she bakes the wedding-cake for the rural brides, and has fifty sensible, homespun remedies for sickness, and comes to watch with the very sick, and helps babies come into the world, and is a sturdy comforter and provider to the rural clergy.

…All the classes and divisions of the American farmer were at the great Fair. There was the prosperous farmer of the New England states, and the equally prosperous farmer of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa; there was the tenant-farmer of the South, who may not prosper, but is always sure of cornmeal, pork, and molasses as long as his planter landlord does not go bankrupt; and the unprosperous farmers farther West, with their mortgaged farms and their discontent. Nor did it take any especial gift of discrimination to pick them out, the one from the other.