John Constable

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.