Smithsonian

Rural Art Exemplars Through Time and Place

There is risk in discussing times and trends in art since masters in any age may not conform to prevailing approaches, and certainly change styles subject matter interests over their lifetimes. Moreover, the multicultural experiences of many great artists defy their association with a single country or national art movement. Camille Pissarro, for example, was born on the island of St. Thomas in the West Indies to Jewish parents, lived most of his adult life in France, but was a Danish citizen! Such enriching influences have contributed manifold perspectives in agrarian art and literature which inform understandings of the condition of the land and the spirit of its dependent humanity.

Grigoriy Myasoyedov,  Time of Toil—The Reapers  (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Time of Toil—The Reapers (1887), Oil on canvas, 70 ½ x 108 ¼ inches, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The pantheon of eminent national artists and authors who created masterpieces on agrarian themes includes Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Millet, and Émile Zola; Leo Tolstoy and Russian masters Alexey Venetsianov and Grigoriy Myasoyedov; Thomas Hardy, John Linnell, and Lea Anna Merritt of Great Britain; and Americans Fannie Palmer, Willa Cather, and Thomas Hart Benton. Study of Western culture through the centuries also reveals that artistic interpretations of rural experience have been variously shaped by the religion and predispositions of painter, author, and patron. While depictions of harvests generally retain noble aspects across times and cultures, they also can serve to realistically show other harsh realities of rural life, or use the power of symbols like sickles and the gleaning poor has also been used to advance political or social causes. Consideration of art and works of fiction and literary-nonfiction through a critical lens informs understandings of the ancient, feudal, and early modern past in ways that also influence contemporary creative expression and meaning making.

Identification of this unifying theme has had limited treatment in scholarly literature. Of over 45,000 entries in the authoritative thirty-four-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Art (2011), for example, no subject headings are included for agrarian, agriculture, rural, or rustic. A similar conspicuous absence is any reference to harvesting, the essential endeavor that variously occupied the overwhelming majority of the populace in the ancient world, in the monumental Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2007). The Smithsonian Art Museum’s inventory of world art, however, contains approximately 500 entries with titles that include the terms “harvest,” “threshing,” and “reaping.” (Dozens of others include words like “Ceres,” “gleaner,” and “grain.”) The Union Index of English Verse (2018), substantially drawn from the Early Modern (c. 1500-1900) period, contains reference to these and other related terms in the title, first, or last line of 745 separate works.