Hans Holbein

Travels Through European Agrarian Art History

This week my wife, Lois, and I are off to lead a two-week European tour with visits to Germany, St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Scandinavian capitals. Taking such a trip in 2017 has special significance since it marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and the 25th anniversary of our ancestors’ migration from Germany to Russia in the 1760s when the colonized areas of the lower Volga River region. Martin Luther (1483-1546) had often mentioned that he was “a farmer’s son” in his sermons as an Augustinian preaching friar and later as theological champion of the Protestant Reformation, and his extensive Bible commentaries contain much agrarian imagery. The complete Lutherbibel was first published in Wittenberg in 1534 and because of the newly invented printed press copies were widely disseminated and delivered Reformation thought in the vernacular of the laity. Indeed, fully a third of all books printed in German during the first half of the sixteenth century were works by the reformer. Luther had high interest in using artful illumination to facilitate understanding of biblical texts, and had known the Elector of Saxony’s court painter and engraver, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553), since 1504 as both men had been in Duke Frederick III’s circle of patronage.

Hans Holbein, Ruth and Boaz; Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam (Paris, 1552); Adolf Bartels, Der Bauer in der deutschen Vergangenheit (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs, 1900)

Hans Holbein, Ruth and Boaz; Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam (Paris, 1552); Adolf Bartels, Der Bauer in der deutschen Vergangenheit (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs, 1900)

Luther and others from his circle of translator-colleagues like Wittenberg Greek professor Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560) are known to have participated in the arrangement of text and Cranach’s vividly colored woodcuts of lively depictions for the first complete 1534 version. Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I commissioned Cranach and renowned German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) to illustrate in pen the margins of a parchment Order of St. George Prayer-Book (c. 1515) that included Dürer’s drawing of the Virgin Mary with ears of wheat. Images of Maria im Ährenklied (Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress) date to the late fourteenth century in Milan and cathedral paintings of the graceful Madonna with long blonde hair and clad in dark blue dresses adorned with golden heads of grain were popular until the Reformation. The origins of these depictions have been attributed to early church lore about the Virgin’s girlhood when she was said to have prayed for the Bread of Heaven while she embroidered clothes. In the medieval church tradition, blue represents heavenly grace and ears of grain have symbolized the spiritual nourishment and fertility of the church. 

Albrecht Dürer, “Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress” (c. 1515)   Randzeichnungen zum Gebetbuche des Kaisers Maximilian I (Munich, 1907)

Albrecht Dürer, “Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress” (c. 1515)  
Randzeichnungen zum Gebetbuche des Kaisers Maximilian I (Munich, 1907)

Maria in Ährenkleid (c. 1490), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Salzburg

Maria in Ährenkleid (c. 1490), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Salzburg

German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein (c. 1497-1543) also provided woodcut illustrations for early editions of the Lutherbibel as well as commissioned works for Sir Thomas Moore in England and European papal princes. While his ambiguous religious convictions changed over time, Holbein is generally associated with the reformist movement and his art is considered among the supreme examples from the German reformation. As seen in his rendering of Ruth and Boaz for a Vulgate edition of the Bible (c. 1525), Holbein’s art represents a unique aesthetic in the transition from Gothic formalism to the refreshing realism in illustrations and portraiture. German printmaking is also notable for the popular “perspective” (vue d’optique) panoramas by Georg Balthasar Probst (1732-1801) and others artists affiliated in the eighteenth century with Augsburg printers that simulated three-dimensional views of Bible and historical and city scenes.

Among the most important contributors to Hausväterliteratur were the Lutheran pastors Johann Coler (1570-1639) and Franz Phillip Florinus (1649-1699). German writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) were also known to moralize on agrarian themes in poems like “As a Man Soweth”:

We must not gather hope to be mowers,
And to gather the ripe old ears,
Unless we have first been sowers
And watered the furrows with tears.”

“It is not just as we take it,
This mystical world of ours,
Life’s field will yield as we make it
A harvest of thorns or of flowers.

Works like the Florinus’s widely read Oeconomus Prudens (1702) were beautifully illustrated with technical drawings and engravings of threshing scenes and other field labors. One of Germany’s most acclaimed engravers and lithographers of country scenes was Johann M. Mettenleiter (1765-1853), a native of Baden-Württemberg whose early work included illustrations for Franz Marius Babo’s Paintings from the Life of the People (1784) and Lorenz von Westenrieder’s History of Bavaria (1786).  Mettenleiter became a founding member of the Munich Kunstverein where he improved lithographic processes of the time which led the wider distribution of his workmanship and noble patronage. In 1790 Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria appointed Mettenleiter as his court engraver, and Russian Tsar Alexander I subsequently commissioned him to complete a series of engravings of his country estates in St. Petersburg and awarded him the Imperial Order of St. Stanislas. Mettenleiter’s distinctive compositions that depict both country labor and aristocratic life are evident in his 1788 woodcut, Lords and Reapers Celebrate Harvest.

Agrarian associations with German Enlightenment thought is also evident in the writings of Augsburg’s Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm (1758-1811) and poet and pedagogue Christian Felix Weisse (1726-1804) of Leipzig. Wilhelm was a Protestant pastor and natural philosopher who contributed nineteen of twenty-five volumes in the magisterial Discourses in Natural History published from the 1790s to 1810 by his father, Christian Art Wilhelm, with hundreds of hand-colored copperplate engravings by Jacob Xaver Schmutzer (1713-1775) and Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt (1855-1812). Wesse tutored children of the nobility and edited the influential journal Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freyen Künste (Library of the Beautiful Sciences and Liberal Arts) for three decades beginning in 1759. Weisse criticized extravagance in literature and became a popular children’s author of stories that blended religious piety with regional folklore, and published a pedagogical weekly, Der Kinderfruend (The Children’s Friend), the first periodical for children in German. As in his poem “After the Harvest” (“Nach der Ernte”), many of Weisse’s stories and poems served to impart young and old alike with appreciation for country life throughout Saxony.

The fields around all empty lie,
Our barns are stored with grain,
And joyfully we homeward hie,
And bring our labor’s gain.
Lovely field, when Spring around
Has flung her verdue bright,
When May spreads flowers on the ground,
And trees are blooming white.
But lovelier far the golden wheat
That springeth from the soil,
That bows the head as though to greet
With thankfulness our toil.
On wagons, ‘neath their golden weight
That groan, our maidens ride,
The while, with honest joy elate,
Our reapers march beside.

Attributed to Jacob Xaver Schmutzer, “Methods of Threshing and Flailing Grain”
Hand-colored engravings, 3 ¾ x 6 ½ inches
Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm, Unterhaltungen aus der Naturgeschichte (Augsburg, 1810)


Rural themes in Continental literature further developed into the nineteenth century Volksliteratur (folk literature) and Dorfgeschichte (village tales) of Swiss writer Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854), Germans Fritz Reuter (1810-1874) and Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882), and Austrian novelist and poet, Peter Rosegger (1843-1918). Writing in the Low German dialects of country people, these popular writers composed colloquial verse, humorous short stories, and adventuresome Bauernroman novels of local flavor that idealized some aspects of peasant life while presenting frank depictions of the rural poor. Julian Schmidt, a literary critic of the time, observed that these writers keenly conveyed their characters’ personal enjoyments alongside internal dissensions common to village life through the hearty openness of peasant conversation. 

Gotthelf’s Uli der Knecht (Ulrich the Farm Servant, 1841), translated into English by John Ruskin, is the story of a poor farmer who struggles to learn newer methods of cultivation to transform his meagre holdings into a thriving enterprise. He seasonally hires out to more prosperous Bernese neighbors to sharpen scythes and tend livestock. He partakes of harvest feasting where, “Even the most callous [landowners] feel some sentiment of thankfulness towards God, and understand that they owe Him some offering as an expression of their gratitude. …Should not habitual thanksgiving be the result of so much bounty?” Reuter, who was jailed as a young man for political activism, wrote the three-volume novel Ut mine Stromid (1862-1864), published in English as Seedtime and Harvest (1872) and From My Farming Days (1878), which describes with hints of Dickens-like caricature the peasant farmers and villagers of his native Mecklenburg.

One of the most influential Dorfgeschichte writers was the German-Jewish poet and Swabian novelist Berthold Auerbach, author of the immensely popular Schwartzwälder Dorfgeschichten (Black Forest Village Tales, 1843), published in English in 1869 as Black Forest Village Stories. In the eponymous tale “Lauterbach,” Auerbach tells of the young country schoolmaster who finds work patiently tending the youth of Nordstettin. As a result of Lauterbach’s after-school countryside ramblings, readers are shown his “Wisdom of the Fields” notebook that records personal reflections and relates coarse-grained peasant harvest lore and provincial expressions to lessons for life:

     —In cutting grain, the reaper must lay the swath behind him, so as to have nothing before him but the blades still standing. So with the deeds that we have done. They must be out of sight, so that all our attention may be turned to what yet remains to do.
     —When in the distance I see mowers bowing and rising so regularly, it seems as if they were going through some ceremonious ritual of prayer.
     —The weeds in the grain-fields are no man’s property until the poor take them away and convert them into nutritious food. Do you ask, of what use are weeds? Perhaps many other things should be judged by the same rule.
     —Every patch of ground has its history. Could anyone unravel the mutations which transferred it from hand to hand, and the fortunes and sentiments of those who tilled it, he would understand the history of the human race….

    One of the Austria’s most beloved authors, Heimatdichter (homeland poet) Peter Rosegger fashioned lively novels, short stories, and poetry deeply influenced by his experiences as a farm youth and devout country schoolteacher in the rural southeastern Tyrolian highlands. Critics praised such works as Volklieben in Steiermark (Folklife in Styria, 1871), his semi-autobiographical Waldheimat (The Forest Farm, 1877), and epistolary novel Erdsegen (Earth’s Blessing, 1900) for their lyrical yet unsentimental representations of land-folk that combined humor and ill-fortune. Rosegger’s country characters live between worlds ancient and modern and confront challenges of the day in stories rich with rural proverbs, folksongs, traditional remedies, and culinary lore. Europeans who perceived growing urban pretentiousness found in Rosegger’s works meaningful expression of Die Gute Gesellschaft (The Good Society) where dignity and respect for others and nature were informed by tradition and religious belief. Personal autonomy celebrated by avant popular culture offered a choice of risk divorced from the stabilizing, meaningful Volksgeist humus of locale, community, and obligation. By 1905 Rosegger’s books had been translated into twenty-two languages; in 1913 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and became the most widely read German author of his day. Details of agronomy and nature woven into Rosegger’s prose reflect intimate knowledge of farm life, as evident in the observations of Waldheimat farmer “Jakob der Letzte:”

    Before him the brown fields stretch away, the larks blow their trumpets, and in tender, reddish blades the dead arise and look up to heaven. Then gradually everything begins to grown green, the tiny leaves curl and bend earthwards again as if they are listening for any counsels about life that the Mother may give to them. Then they aspire upwards, rolling themselves into sheaths, out of which, little by little, emerges the stalk and the inmost being of the grain. …And the single blade is now in its full glory. The four-sided ear, in which the still tender grains lie scale-like over each other, hangs its blossom out like tiny flags wherever a grainlet lies in its cradle, which flutter and tremble without ceasing, while the high stalk rocks thoughtfully to and fro.
    …Strong and slender the stalks grow up from joint to joint. The lance-shaped, dark green leaves that lorded it at first, have nearly vanished, the stalks droop their heavy heads, which give back the sown grain thirty or forty-fold, one stalk laying its golden head on the shoulder of another. In the sun’s heat by day, at night in the light of the moon and the stars and the glimmer of glow-worms, they are ripening towards harvest. …When Jacob, always first and last in the heat and burden of the day, rests in late evening beneath a grain-stook in the harvest field, his dreaming begins again. The breath of grass and flowers makes him drowsy: he watches the antics of a jolly grasshopper, hears the chirp of a cricket—then it all fades away. He is looking out over a country where there is no blue forest, no green meadows, no mountain crags, and no clear streams. So far as ever the eye can reach is one great golden sea, an immeasurable field of grain.

    Anthologies of nineteenth century German poetry included works by such authors as Wilhelm von Merckel (1803-1861) and Martin Greif (1839-1911) whose verse attests to their intimacy with rural life. While von Merckel pursued a career in law in Berlin and Greif chiefly resided in Munich, these cities were surrounded by productive farmlands where city dwellers often visited friends and relatives on holiday. Von Merckel’s long poem Ruhe (Rest, 1855) expresses affection for country life and is filled with sensory descriptions of experience well-known to field workers such as the sight of quail weaving down rows of grain, and elders forecasting the weather and estimating crop yields. Grief’s short Hochsommernacht (High Summer Night), featured in Hausbuch Deutscher Lyric (1906) with a woodcut by Munich artist Fritz Schmidt (1876-1935), expresses the fragile serenity of a field of grain under the harvest moon:

The vast world silently rests,
Slumber falls on the moon’s horn,
All is held in the Lord’s safe hands.
Mountain furies seem to beckon—
But those sent to the harvest field
Are angels waving through the grain.

The early nineteenth century’s foremost Scandinavian landscape artist was Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), a native of Bergen who studied in Sweden and Denmark, traveled widely in Switzerland and Italy, and created most of his art in Germany. Dahl’s mature oeuvre represented a synthesis of academy training in Copenhagen in the emotional power of the great Dutch Master grand landscapes with the Naturalism for which Dresden had become famous by the 1820s and where Dahl lived continuously from 1818. Throughout his experiences across the continent, however, Dahl returned recurrently in his art to interpretation of the northern landscapes of his native land with dazzling oils and attention to detail as seen in such canvases as The Fortun Valley (1842) and Hjelle in Valdres (1851). Nestled at the head of narrow Lake Oppstynsvatnet one hundred miles northeast of Bergen, scenic Hjelle in late summer offered an ideal setting for the artist to express the beauty and moral virtue of the country in a time of rising Norwegian nationalism. The spectacular Hjelle view rendered in Dahl’s meticulous tiny strokes depicts a golden brown field of upright sheaves that seems to glow between a row of village structures to the right with deep blue lake and emerald-clad mountain slopes in the background. 

Dahl’s most ardent disciple, Thomas Fearnley (1802-1842), met his mentor in 1826 during one of Dahl’s trips to his homeland, and studied with him in Dresden from 1829 to 1830. Unlike Dahl, Fearnley returned to Norway following his studies in Germany to reside there permanently from 1838. Among his many naturalistic rural scenes are Haystacks, Rydal, Cumbria (1838, PLATE 25) and View from Romsdalen (1838) that show harvesters strolling through  rolling fields of ripened grain in the fabled coastal valley northwest of Hjelle. The views express Rousseau’s Enlightenment concept of the intrinsic nobility of country people who live apart from the decadent influences of urban life. The paintings of Norwegian Romanticist Hans Dahl (1849-1937) evoke similar sentiment and reflect the influence of his landscape and portrait studies at the Düsseldorf School in the 1870s and ‘80s. Many of his detailed yet fanciful paintings like Norwegian Girl depict farm maidens returning from the fields in colorful national dress.

After Ferdinand Waldemüller, The Harvest (1847); Lithograph on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches (1887); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

After Ferdinand Waldemüller, The Harvest (1847); Lithograph on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches (1887); Palouse Regional Studies Collection