Ben Shahn

Gleaning’s Early Modern Revival

Through arrangements with the US Department of Agriculture made possible by my friend and fellow historian Alex McGregor of Colfax’s The McGregor Company, I was recently able to visit Washington, D. C. and document works of agrarian art in our national collections. Among many highlights was seeing the gritty paintings of 1930’s New Deal artists like Ben Shahn as well as classical European works. Among the most beautiful were paintings on exhibit in the National Gallery by Jean-Antoine Watteau who turned to prevailing art academy representations that emphasized the human form of workers rather than the conditions of their lives. Rembrandt van Rinj, Nicholas Poussin, and Bernard Fabritius also rendered the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz in exotic settings and costume with a sacred gravity far removed from the period’s gritty realities in rural Europe. Not until Enlightenment attitudes supplanted aristocratic sentiment were peasants more fully reintegrated with aspirations of the rising middle class through art and literature consistent with era’s ideals of fraternity, progress, and rights of the common man. Enlightenment literary attention to gleaning is also notable for its association with feminine aspects of harvest and the state’s professed benevolent concern for the destitute.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

Studies of customs and laws on gleaning challenge conventional interpretations that conflict over the poor’s harvest share arose with the emerging market economies of early modern Europe. But very few and obscure references to gleaning are found the late Roman period with the term virtually unknown in documents from the sixth century AD for the next six hundred years. References to the practice that emerge again in twelfth century English and French village by-laws regulate compensation of workers, describe limits to gleaning in village commons typically reserved as pasture, and are not explicitly associated with the poor. The raking of stalks missed by wielders of sickle and scythe had likely become one of the several steps embedded in the typical harvest cycle in which all able-bodied workers participated. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Ceres (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The dominant narrative has held that as private ownership of land and the enclosure movement weakened villagers’ traditional communal rights and the aristocratic great estates, capitalistic demands for productivity eroded moral commitments to the impoverished. But gleaning had become conventional harvest practice and had long since lost its distinct association with the indigent. Population increase since the seventeenth century and the growth of Europe’s cities created substantial numbers of landless poor. Rather than addressing the new realities with comprehensive interventions for public welfare, state officials variously enacted archaic gleaning laws that fomented conflict in the countryside instead of ameliorating needs of the dispossessed. Church leaders often invoked religious rhetoric to justify such government efforts by attempting to apply ancient Levitical imperatives and the story of Ruth to distinctly new economic realities emerging in Western Europe.

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. 

Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes:  New Deal Farm Security Administration Harvest Photos and Art

A remarkable team of photographers were associated with the Department of Agriculture’s WPA-era Farm Security Administration (FSA) from 1935 to 1943 including Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, and Marjory Collins. Although they had little background in farming, these individuals immersed themselves in the realities of Depression era farming to create some of the nation’s most iconic images of the time. The group worked under the direction of FSA Historical Section director Roy Stryker to formulate a vernacular realism of images and articles that honored rural traditions. Rothstein (1915-1985) found it useful to overcome the suspicions of country folk by conspicuously carrying his Leica camera for several days when visiting with residents on a new assignment without actually taking any pictures. Eventually his subjects felt accustomed to his presence and would even ask to have their pictures taken in formal settings and for what Rothstein sought as “unobtrusive camera” shots: “the idea of becoming a part of the environment… to such an extent that they’re not even aware that pictures are being taken.” While visiting harvest fields in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington, Rothstein gained special appreciation for the significance of small details and came to understand with his colleagues that their mission was not photojournalism, but “photography as fine art” depicting “man in relationship to the environment.”

Marion Post Wolcott,  Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia  (1939);   Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Marion Post Wolcott, Harvesting Oats on Flint River Farm, Georgia (1939); Black and white film nitrate negative, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Russell Lee (1903-1986) was especially sympathetic to the rural poor and traveled widely in the Pacific Northwest and upper Midwest in the spirit of his unpublished “Hired Man” project. Lee sought to document the essential if substantially neglected public depiction of hired farm hands and transient “tramp” laborers, also derisively called “hobos” and “bums,” who traveled the countryside to find work during the harvest season. The collaborative efforts of FSA photographers contributed to widespread public support for New Deal rural improvement programs as images of austere farm homes, windswept fields, and beleaguered harvest workers were featured at public exhibitions and filled the pages of the nation’s leading newspapers and periodicals. As her FSA colleagues worked extensively in the Midwest and South, Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) documented rural experience of the era from New England to the Southern states. Her stirring images also express the administration’s social consciousness and the presence of a woman sometimes provided them access to persons and situations that excluded other outsiders.

Ben Shahn,  Harvest Dinner  (1938);   Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm;   Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Ben Shahn, Harvest Dinner (1938); Black and white nitrate film negatives, 35 mm; Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was already an accomplished National Academy of Design artist and printmaker in Manhattan when also hired in 1935 as one of the first FSA photographers. He used his pictures not only to advance the agency’s moral mission to inform the wider population to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art including many harvest paintings and lithographs including Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). The latter is a watercolor of several dozen black stalks of wheat highlighted by swaths of bright colors in areas where the stems cross. It was also used for Shahn’s illustration of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (“To everything there is a season….”) in a collection of photo-lithographs rendered with handwritten and illuminated text by the artist for Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris: The Trianon Press, 1967). In the book’s preface, Shahn attributes the origin of his artistic commitment to Old Testament references by family and community elders in his Jewish hometown and a particular verse from Solomon’s ancient book: “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion….” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).  

Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, on the Virgil and Cora Thaxton farm near Mechanicsburg consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished harvesters. The artist’s notebooks include details on his hosts’ Depression era economic plight known to many tenant farmers who struggled with low crop shares to make ends meet:

Virgil Thaxton rents a 120-acre farm… [which] is the fourth farm he has rented within the last eight years. At each change he hopes to make enough to have a nice home for his family. Within the last eight years hogs have not brought more than ten cents on the foot. Wheat brought sixty cents per bushel this year. Mr. Thaxton is constantly agitated. He is conscious of the rundown condition of his farm. He would like to have it look as neat as Mr. Brand's own farm. In his agitation he is constantly pulling up a weed here, a weed there, but must then break off to tend the stock. Mr. Thaxton votes for Roosevelt…. Mr. Thaxton loves the land. Two years ago he was offered a small political job in the city. Mr. Thaxton: “But when I thought of the young wheat coming up and that pretty green on top of the hill and it is pretty I just wouldn't think of it. And then the children…. I hear wheat is bringing sixty cents now. If it only brought a few cents more I could afford to fix up this place. As it is, what with giving Mr. Brand his half, we can just get by.”

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes  (1967);    Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher    (Paris, 1967)

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967); Ecclesiastes Or, The Preacher (Paris, 1967)

Shahn’s vernacular visuals provide an intimate look at domestic farm life as if Shahn and his camera are invisible observers inside the home. The midday meal was one of the most harried times for the apron-clad women who are shown cooking and serving, while men and boys dressed in overalls sit almost reverentially to partake of the abundant provisions and break from harvest labors. Shahn’s interior views show a sparsely decorated but comfortable home with paper calendar and mercury thermometer above a substantial wooden sideboard laden with meat, potatoes, bread, cake, and other fare. Another view shows a large framed picture on the wall of Christ holding a child, as if both are looking down at a boy—the Thaxton’s son, Harold, seated beneath them. Two tables covered with white fabric tablecloths are splendidly set with silverware, patterned china and Depression glass serving bowls, pitchers, plates, salt and pepper shakers, and wine glasses that probably hold a dessert. The workers eat quietly and drink coffee as if grateful for the bounty and mindful of the long hours of hot afternoon labor that await them.

From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure, April 2017 (Part 1)

This blog is the beginning of a series on my (Richard's) trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the other posts in the series here.


Adolph Weinman,  Cereals  (1908), Vermont Marble;   North Pediment, U. S. Department of Agriculture Whitten Building

Adolph Weinman, Cereals (1908), Vermont Marble; North Pediment, U. S. Department of Agriculture Whitten Building

Last spring I was checking the calendar for dates of what our family calls “coming attractions”—the periodic gathering of the clan at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, family birthdays, an annual Cascades high country hike, and the like. In doing so I noticed that I had long since qualified as a member of the faculty at Seattle Pacific University for a sabbatical, and had probably missed the application deadline for this year, which turned out to be the case. Since I had done a fair amount of research and writing on environmental sustainability education which dovetailed nicely with my interests in Palouse Heritage regenerative agriculture and heirloom crops, I pled mercy from Dean Eigenbrood’s department court since the trail for further study led beyond Seattle. Many sources of information I sought were not available online but would greatly benefit from visits to the Library of Congress, Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the University of California-Riverside, and other locations. With strong enrollments in our SPU teacher education and my pledge to supply the dean with bread and ale from the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg, my request was thankfully granted for this current spring quarter.

Pancake Time with Amy, Andrew Ross, and Glenn;   Oregon State University Barley Day, Corvallis (2016)

Pancake Time with Amy, Andrew Ross, and Glenn; Oregon State University Barley Day, Corvallis (2016)

Valued travel support for these endeavors has also come from the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, founded by Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina. Glenn is one of the founders of the country’s “back to land and table” heritage grains and culinary arts movement, a fellow incredibly generous with his time and wisdom, and known to fly cross-country for breakfast made by our mutual friend and “Pancake Queen of America” author Amy Halloran of New York. (As I recall he also took part in Oregon State University’s Barley Conference that day last year, but mostly came for the pancakes.) I am very grateful to the SPU administration, Glenn, Amy, my wife, Lois and family, and a host of others for encouragement and arrangements and invite you to let me be your guide on this fun cross-country adventure. I’ll be posting updates here to our Palouse Heritage blog in the event you’d also like to experience new insights related to heritage, sustainability, and health. Onward!   --Richard

 

WASHINGTON, D. C.

Capitol Mall Classical Agrarian Sculpture

For the past couple years I’ve been composing a sequel to Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest (WSU Press, 2013), and for various reasons found the muse leading me to a work tentatively titled “Hallowed Harvests: Gleaners, Reapers, and Threshers in Western Art and Literature.” Although I barely picked up an undergrad literature minor long ago, and my formal art training chiefly consists of having watched legendary educator Arden Johnson in action at Endicott-St. John Middle School when I served as principal there in the 1990s, the prospect of completing a proper study has been somewhat daunting. But I take heart in knowing that many of authors and artists featured in the burgeoning HH manuscript had little formal training though I have tried to make up for that by reading far more library and abebooks.com volumes than I ever anticipated, and thought someone who grew up with good Palouse Country dirt on his shoes might be able to offer at least a dusting of some fresh insight on van Gogh’s Wheatfield series, Monet’s Grainstacks, Thomas Hart Benton’sharvest fields, and the sculpted Art Deco treasures at the Chicago Board of Trade Building. This trip is greatly furthering this hope by enabling me to view such works in person and meet their thoroughly informed guardians.    

James E. Fraser and Edward H. Ratti,  Heritage  (1935);   National Archives South Entrance, Washington, D. C.

James E. Fraser and Edward H. Ratti, Heritage (1935); National Archives South Entrance, Washington, D. C.

My intention has been to fly from Washington State to Washington, D. C. in order to begin this peculiar expedition by viewing examples of notable monumental agrarian art on the Capitol Mall, and then discussing heritage grain restoration with staff at the National Arboretum, Mt. Vernon Living History Farm, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Great Hopes Plantation. This begins with a confession that both back in the day as a chaperone with student groups and on personal trips to Washington, D. C., I have passed most of these monuments without ever noting their presence let alone significance. And since they grace the entrances to some of the nation’s most prominent places—the National Archives and Arlington Bridge, for example, it isn’t as if they’ve been inconspicuous. But having a dozen or so kids in your charge in the big city does have its diversions. 

In 1923 the U. S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency charged with reviewing design of all construction in Washington, D. C., began consideration of plans authorized by Congress to build Arlington Memorial Bridge as part of a major route connecting Arlington National Cemetery with the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol district. Sculptors James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) and Leo Friedlander (1888-1966) were later commissioned to present designs for four heroic equestrian monuments at the bridge’s eastern plaza entrances—The Arts of Peace and The Arts of War. Minnesota-born Fraser had attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He conceived of Music and Harvest and Aspiration and Literature in Neoclassical style to symbolize the aesthetics of peace, while Friedlander’s martial designs were titled Valor and Sacrifice. Earlier notable works by Fraser included the Indian Head (Buffalo) Nickel and End of the Trail, the iconic melancholy image of a mounted Sioux Indian he had created when just fifteen years old for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. 

James E. Fraser,  The Arts of Peace—Harvest  (1950);   Lincoln Memorial Circle Fire-gilded Bronze Statue; Washington, D. C.

James E. Fraser, The Arts of Peace—Harvest (1950); Lincoln Memorial Circle Fire-gilded Bronze Statue; Washington, D. C.

Music and Harvest featured a male figure grasping a sickle and carrying sheaf of grain while striding alongside Pegasus. After fashioning a series of smaller working models, the final works were cast in Italy using the lost-wax process and fire gilding to form a 400-ton monument on a granite pedestal measuring nineteen feet high and sixteen feet long—the largest equestrian statue in the America. Budgetary constraints, World War II, and technical problems in casting works of such proportions delayed their installation until 1950.

Fraser was also commissioned to create other iconic structures in Washington, D. C., including the nine-foot tall Heritage and Guardianship monuments (1935) that flank the National Archives South Entrance. Designed by Fraser and carved from Indiana limestone by New York sculptor Edward H. Ratti (1904-1969), Heritage (see frontispiece) features a seated allegorical matriarch holding a child and sheaf of grain. The statue’s massive granite base is surrounded by images in relief of farm tools and livestock and the inscription, “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”

 

National Arboretum

Jeff Reinhart, Grass Coordinator; Jason Wight, Field Trials Coordinator, University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

With Jason and “Waves of Grain” Heritage Wheat Plantings

With Jason and “Waves of Grain” Heritage Wheat Plantings

The National Arboretum covers 440 acres and Jeff works tirelessly to promote best practices and varieties for DC area managed landscapes, while Jason works directly with farmers all across Maryland. Since our son, Karl, completed his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Maryland and I hadn’t visited the school since then, I was pleased to see some familiar sights around Terp-dom. Jeff and Jason have both helped organize the popular “Waves of Grain” exhibit of demonstration plots established in 2014 for visitors who might be unfamiliar with production of wheat, barley, rye, and other crops. Jeff also manages the Arboretum’s 1 1/3 acres of various grasses, and both report strong interest in heritage grain varieties by area microbreweries because of their unique and rich flavor profiles.

Original Capitol Corinthian Columns (1826), National Arboretum

Original Capitol Corinthian Columns (1826), National Arboretum

The twenty-two sandstone Corinthian columns that appear starkly in the center of the National Arboretum were part of the original United States Capitol Building and installed in 1826. They appear in numerous pictures of presidential inaugurations from the time of Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower when they were dismantled and replaced in 1958. Jeff said they rested in obscurity along a grassy embankment until someone suggested they would make an impressive assembly at the Arboretum and in 1990 they were erected at their present location.

Constantine Brumidi,  The Apotheosis of Washington—Agriculture  (1865);   United States Capitol Building RotundaDome, Washington, D.C.

Constantine Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington—Agriculture (1865); United States Capitol Building RotundaDome, Washington, D.C.

Our American Founders’ grand vision for New World prosperity was beautifully translated into the design and decoration of the original Capitol Building. The massive inner and outer domes crowning the 1800 structure were completed in the 1860s with an inner oculus that reveals an enormous fresco coveringapproximately 5,000 square feet, The Apotheosis of Washington (1865) by Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880). The painting depicts George Washington enthroned amidst the heavenlies above six allegorical perimeter scenes. Agriculture shows Ceres with a wreath of wheat and cornucopia perched atop a mechanical reaper (!) assisted by a capped Young America who holds the reins of the horses. Flora gathers flowers nearby. Next time you’re inside the Capitol Rotunda, be sure to look up!

 

Library of Congress, Farm Security Administration Collection Harvest Series

National Archives, Agricultural Extension Service Photograph Collection

National Archives, Agricultural Extension Service Photograph Collection

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) originated in 1935 as an independent government agency first known as the Resettlement Administration (RA) and one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature New Deal programs to promote rural recovery in the wake of the Great Depression. The RA oversaw a number of farm relief efforts including government loans to enable sharecroppers and tenant farmers to purchase their own acreage on favorable credit terms and small farm owners to underwrite equipment and operational costs. In a day when many Americans still lived in rural areas, RA field representatives established offices throughout the country to screen candidates and assist in applications, facilitate extension education, and monitor progress. 

John Collier,  Wheat Shocks in Pennsylvania  (1939)

John Collier, Wheat Shocks in Pennsylvania (1939)

In 1937 the RA was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and renamed the Farm Security Administration, and publicity efforts were launched to promote the agency’s work and acquaint government officials with the plight of the rural poor. Prior to this period the most extensive photographic documentation of American agriculture had been undertaken by George W. Ackerman and E. C. Hunter of the USDA Agricultural Extension Service in the 1920s, but their work had primarily focused on American progress in agricultural mechanization. The 1930s FSA Historical Section Photo Unit was organized by director Roy Stryker both to document the agency’s fieldwork and to foster continued support from Congress and local governments. The unit’s work under Stryker would come to significantly shape the emerging genre of American documentary photography.

Although some experimentation was done with color film as early as 1939, the vast majority of FSA photographers black-and-white. The stark and stunning visual record amassed by the unit from 1938 to 1942 yielded a prodigious collection of some quarter-million negatives ranging in size from 35 mm to 8 x 10 inches. Approximately 170,000 FSA images, digitized in the 1990s, survive as a national treasure and are now housed under controlled conditions at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus Audio-Visual Center.

George W. Ackerman,  Unloading Wheat  (1925) and  Harvesting Wheat in Kansas  (c. 1925);   Agricultural Extension Service Photograph Collection, National Archives and Records Center

George W. Ackerman, Unloading Wheat (1925) and Harvesting Wheat in Kansas (c. 1925); Agricultural Extension Service Photograph Collection, National Archives and Records Center

Most of the photographers recruited by Stryker for the FSA devoted considerable attention to farm life, and those who especially did so included, in order of being hired, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Marion Post Wolcott, Jack Delano, Jack Vachon, and Marjory Collins. The group brought aesthetic perspectives to their far flung endeavors throughout the nation and formulated a remarkable vernacular realism of images and articles that honored the traditions of common folks while recording the lives of farm families. Complicating their plight were social adjustments in the wake of an unprecedented era of agricultural mechanization.               

FSA photographers deployed across the country during the period that witnessed the waning years of cradle scythe reaping in isolated valleys of the South and Midwest horse-drawn reapers and steam threshers to the massive horse-drawn combines of the Pacific Northwest, and the advent of combustion engine-powered harvesting equipment in all these places. Since most of his photographers were from East Coast cities or Europe, Stryker provided copies of Columbia University geographer J. Russell Smith’s authoritative North America: Its People and Resources (1925) that featured detailed descriptions and maps of the country’s geophysical regions with summaries of their distinctive rural demographics and agricultural profiles. Members of the team also periodically met to discuss methodologies and subject matter for upcoming assignments.

In the mid-1930s, Lithuanian-born Ben Shahn (1898-1969) shared a Manhattan studio with Walker Evans, who collaborated with James Agee on the classic book about three impoverished Southern tenant families, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men (1941). Shahn was well acquainted with dire poverty from his youth, and his sympathy for the down and out would be evident in a lifetime of artwork and political activism. The intellectual range Shahn applied to his work is reflected in his exhortation to students at Harvard where he delivered the 1956-’57 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures: “[B]efore you do attend a university work at something for a while. …If you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle…. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many great artists.” Pre-Raphaelites, Hudson River artists, and German Genre painters were all notable for study, as were classical and popular music, big city preachers, and small town New England politicians.

Arthur Rothstein,  Combines of More Prosperous Days, Central Oregon  (1936)

Arthur Rothstein, Combines of More Prosperous Days, Central Oregon (1936)

Dorothea Lange,  Wheat Shock, Sperryville, Virginia  (1936) and Lee Russell,  Oats, Park County, Montana  (1942)

Dorothea Lange, Wheat Shock, Sperryville, Virginia (1936) and Lee Russell, Oats, Park County, Montana (1942)

Shahn used his photographs not only to advance the agency’s moral mission of informing the wider population in order to support rural economic and social reform, but also as models for various forms of agrarian art. He photographed many harvest scenes, and later created such paintings and lithographs as Bountiful Harvest (1944), Beatitudes (1952), and Wheat Field—Ecclesiastes (1967). Shahn’s remarkable series of Ohio grain harvest photographs taken in August, 1938, consisted of over 200 images with many that feature women preparing and serving meals to famished field workers.

Among the best known Depression-era photojournalists was Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) whose iconic 1936 image Migrant Mother, for which she received a Guggenheim Prize, forever associated her work with the plight of the dispossessed described in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Raised under difficult circumstances herself in New Jersey, Lange studied photography at Columbia University and spent most of her adult life in California. She began working for the RA/FSA in 1935 and sought to bring public attention to the conditions of the rural poor by documenting the lives of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and migrant workers and distributing her pictures to newspapers throughout the country.

Dorothea Lange,  Cradling Wheat near Christianburg, Virginia  (1936)

Dorothea Lange, Cradling Wheat near Christianburg, Virginia (1936)


Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog series on Richard's "Great American Heritage Grains Adventure."

Richard's trip has been made possible by generous support from The Carolina Gold Foundation, Anson Mills and Glenn Roberts, Seattle Pacific University, the University of California-Riverside Department of History, and Palouse Heritage.