Van Gogh

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.


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.