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. 

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.