School & Library

21st Century Gleaning at Home and Abroad

French film-maker Agnès Varda’s documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, winner of the Mélès Prize for Best French Film of 2000, offers controversial interpretation of Millet’s iconic painting The Gleaners (1857). Distributed in the United States as The Gleaners and I, the movie shows how poverty need not deprive individuals in any age of dignity and humor. They may be compelled, however, to overcome significant social and economic obstacles to eke out an existence. The film has contributed to a broader, contemporary definition of gleaning to include the gathering of unwanted foods of all kinds—bread, fruit, vegetables, and fish, as well as other castaway resources. Varda’s sobering images of oppressed, vulnerable  and often young souls, illustrate the disturbing trend of income inequality in modern societies where “gleaning” remains a salient reality for many, and its potentially harsh consequences. Her work also suggests possible solutions in the food service sector through the stewardship of surplus distribution via urban pantries and community food banks.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

This more broadly defined concept of gleaning was described in The Other America (1962), Michael Harrington’s influential study of hunger and homelessness that shaped Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. In the wake of growing public awareness, social service and religious groups have formed new partnerships in recent decades to develop food security programs to distribute perishable produce and processed foods. At least one-third of food produced annually today in America—as much as 40 million tons valued at approximately $75 billion, is wasted due to spoilage and inefficient storage and distribution. Applying the idea of gleaning to such lost resources, a group of Phoenix activists organized the country’s first urban food bank, Second Harvest, in 1975 (known as Feeding America since 2008). Similar humanitarian efforts followed in Portland (Interagency Food Bank, 1975), Chicago (Food Depository, 1978), Seattle (Food Lifeline, 1979), New York City (City Harvest, 1982), and spread to many other large cities. Some of these endeavors are affiliated with denominational benevolent ministries including the Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network (United Methodist Church), Evangelical Lutheran of America Church World Hunger, and Catholic Relief Services Hunger Campaign.

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, produces organic grain and vegetables, and regularly works with local churches and crews of Feeding America gleaners to supply 2nd Harvest and other regional food banks. He explains his and other farmer-contributors’ motivations in both practical and moral terms: “Sometimes growers have surpluses because commercial buyers have certain commodity specifications by size or weight. This can leave a considerable amount of quality produce in the field, and we don’t like seeing such waste. We also believe that the blessing of a bountiful harvest brings responsibility to share with others.” The opportunities and responsibilities that come with abundant harvests are also evident in revivals of the ancient Passover Festival among religious fellowships throughout the world. Israel’s celebrated and prolific composer, Matityahu Shalem (1904-1975), wrote numerous folks songs for contemporary Jewish worship including Passover celebrations when the first sheaves of barley are cut for presentation at the temple. His popular Shibbolet Basadeh (Ear of Grain in the Field) is sung and danced to traditional choreography shaped by Shalem’s experiences on a kibbutz in western Galilee where he tended flocks and fields after relocating to Palestine before World War II.

For religious thinkers like Shalem, meaning still retains a supernatural sanction derived from humanity’s simultaneous temporal and spiritual nature. Contemplation of the harvest labor and its bounty can be perceived in the particularities of agrarian experience whether along a Galilean shore or Dakota slope. 

The McCormick Reaper

I couldn’t help but smile at the special childhood memory brought to mind recently when local historian Manton Bailie, lifelong resident and farmer in rural community of Mesa, Washington, showed me some old farm equipment in rusty retirement at this place. When Manton told me about playing on the old horse-powered mechanical reaper it instantly brought back memories of my own Palouse Country boyhood. Although the old McCormick reapers on the hillside above our house had largely been invaded by the branches of cherry tree, a skinny youth could still wiggle down between wooden draper roll and outside iron wheel and dream of driving a tank.

Edwin Fulwider,  Manton Poe  (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington),  The Ford Times  (September, 1953)

Edwin Fulwider, Manton Poe (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington), The Ford Times (September, 1953)

The effectiveness of mechanical reapers like Manton’s and my grandfather’s equipment led to their widespread use throughout the country and subsequent improvements further reduced the need for rural laborers and rendered traditional field gleaning virtually impossible. While some loss of kernels took place as grain heads could shatter from the reaper’s wooden reel paddles, the stalks were effectively captured to be bound, carted, and threshed. But the ancient grain varieties native to Europe for thousands of years and introduced to the New World as early as the 1500s remained essentially unchanged until twentieth century plant genetics spawned hybridized cultivars resistant to shattering and lodging. The inexorable shift to technological modernity eclipsed eons of social and economic relationships that had guided human endeavor since the beginning of recorded history.

Reaping in the Olden Time;  Above:  Reaping in Our Time  (1857)

Reaping in the Olden Time; Above: Reaping in Our Time (1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,”  Harper’s Weekly  (August 1, 1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,” Harper’s Weekly (August 1, 1857)

The momentous tilt that brought greater productivity can be dated with some specificity through art and literature from the period. Explicit depiction of the new horse-power order was shown graphically in an August, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The unattributed author and artist depicted a gathering during the previous week of the influential U. S. Agricultural Society near Syracuse, New York. Crowds had surrounded a grain field there to witness a competition among ninety-five different mechanical reapers. A grand parade of contestants preceding the event led through an impressive castle façade adorned with colorful flags and banners casting mythic significance on the mechanical marvels, jousting drivers, and patron inventors.

“…[T]he days of the sickle are over,” proclaimed the reporter, who advised readers, “Lay it up—the old tool—in a museum, on a fair cushion; label it, number it, …for the time is coming when the sickle will be as rare as the headsman’s axe or the Spanish blunderbuss. We must have a machine like a steam-engine, with two horses to draw it, which shall tear devastatingly through a field of oats or wheat, cut ten feet wide of grain at a stroke, and lay it all ready for sheaving.” The advent of this “startling mechanical enterprise” would lead to the manufacture of an estimated 200,000 machines the following year, with one of the biggest beneficiaries of such land office business being the manufacturer of the Syracuse contest’s gold medal winner—the McCormick’s Reaper.

Defining Harvest, Explaining Print-Making

Although the words “reap,” “thresh,” and “harvest” are often used synonymously today, important distinctions define their use in period literature and among many farmers today. To reap is to cut grain either manually by sickle or scythe, or with a mechanical cutting bar, while threshing, or thrashing, refers to the separation of kernels from heads (spikes) of grain stalks by striking them with a wooden flail, the treading of animals, or being machine-run. Harvesting in former days meant the gathering and storing of unthreshed stalks, but since Early Modern times harvest has also come to mean all of these summertime operations.

B. F. Wetherbee,  The Harvest Moon  (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

B. F. Wetherbee, The Harvest Moon (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

In addition to oil and watercolor paintings featured in this series, art prints represent several production techniques. Artists have used intaglio methods by incising an image into a copper plate with an instrument to render a soft etching, or by using a burin to create a sharper engraved print. Intaglio is also used for mezzotint by roughening the plate for a print of greater surface contrast. Woodcuts are made through a relief process in which grooves are carved on a soft wood surface bearing the artist’s design so it remains standing in relief and is inked for the print. Wood engravings are similar but the spaces between the image’s lines are left standing above the surface and the design itself prints in white. Lithography is a planographic process in which the picture is drawn and treated with inks and solutions on a flat stone or metal surface to make multiple black and white or color impressions.     

The “Good Old Days” — Sweet and Sweat

Once in a while I’ll spot something on Ebay that has special relevance to my musings on agrarian art, and when it falls into my price range that makes it doubly rewarding. So it was recently when I found an exceedingly dog-eared copy of James Wilson’s Art Designs in Harvest Machinery (1884). I know, not exactly a best-seller back in the day let alone now, but it was filled with thirty large exquisitely rendered, large format steel engravings of farm scenes that offer many interesting details about equipment used at that time. Extensive recent research by agricultural historians Jerome Blum (1978) and J. Sanford Rikoon (1988) using period documents indicates how romanticized modern notions have been about social conditions of pre-industrial agrarians.

The emergence of medieval tenancies on terms that favored landlords and small free-holder properties demanded a single family’s devotion to their own limited holdings to make ends meet. Although farmers tended to cluster in villages throughout Europe where they gathered for worship and to socialize, little need existed to join with others for most field operations. To be sure, the weeks of summer harvest were a critical time to ensure sustenance throughout the entire year, and therefore demanded full and creative deployment of all able-bodied personnel from the vicinity and beyond. Modern perceptions endure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “golden age of threshing” that fostered greater cooperation and neighborliness. These values were needed for grand “harvest rings” to pool labor and equipment but were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.

James Wilson & Son,  Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery  (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

James Wilson & Son, Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

As manufacturers in the U. S. and Europe developed more affordable mechanical threshers and steam engines, need for the larger cooperative endeavors diminished. The advent of internal combustion engines in the early twentieth century that replaced animals and steam to power threshing equipment further shifted the complex nexus of technological, economic, and social factors toward single family responsibility. Creative cooperative methods especially during harvest time have continued, however, with seasonal employment of additional workers, sharing and leasing of expensive combines, and organization of grain storage, transportation, and marketing networks.

Modern society’s reliance on convenience stores and relative abundance of provisions serve to obscure understandings of the stolid persistence required to seed, till, and reap lest the family and wider population suffer. Rural folk beckoned rain and sun in proper measure, and prayed that staples would not spoil or be stolen. Until recent times, much of the year for the masses was spent in hope and fear. Hope realized at summer harvest brought promise of sustenance through winter, and come spring it would all begin again. For rich or poor, survival came from what was grown in the good earth. The duties of sowing and harvesting, therefore, had religious connotations which have been reflected in a variety of creative forms of art, literature, and music.

Paul Tretyakov and the Russian Wanderers

I never tire of looking at the heavy coffee table kind of books illustrated with works of art from the world’s great museums—our own National Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute, and lots of places I’ve never visited like Madrid’s Prado and the Getty in Los Angeles. One place I have been able to visit many times is the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, Russia, which contains one of the world’s foremost collections representing a wide range of agrarian art styles and periods. Located on a quiet backstreet several blocks south of the Kremlin, the gallery courtyard entry hosts crowds year-round who first pass beneath the imposing statue of founder Paul Tretyakov, the prominent Russian businessman who established the museum in 1856.

Tretyakov Monument and Museum, Moscow; John Clement Photograph

Tretyakov Monument and Museum, Moscow; John Clement Photograph

Tretyakov’s brooding bronze seems to be judging the worthiness of approaching visitors who seek admission to the wonders behind the gallery’s grand fairy-tale facade adjacent to the Museum Church of St. Nicholas. No Early Church Father is more venerated in Orthodoxy than St. Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, the fourth century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. His righteous life is commemorated for dedication to the welfare of others retold in tales of his miraculous provision of wheat for the people of Myra during time of famine.

Alexei Venetsianov, The Reapers (c. 1828), State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, Russia

Alexei Venetsianov, The Reapers (c. 1828), State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, Russia

A member of the museum church congregation in the late 1800s, Tretyakov recognized the need to preserve priceless icons of St. Nicholas and other religious figures. He also risked material support of great artists even when clerical and state arts officials condemned their pastoral works because of realistic if sometimes unsettling depictions of rural life. Forbidden to exhibit and sell their works through official channels, a group of Russia’s greatest nineteenth century artists including Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, and Grigoriy Myasoyedov founded their own “Itinerant” art exhibitions for which their stylistic school is named. Tretyakov’s controversial generosity enabled them and other artists from Europe and Russia, where they were also known as “Wanderers,” to continue their mission. Tretyakov bequeathed to later generations the grand galleries that vividly acquaint viewers with Old World traditions of reaping, gleaning, and other vital aspects of agrarian life from an age when family and community survival depended on favorable summer harvests.

Monumental canvases painted by Venetsianov, Myasoyedov, and the Itinerants show fieldworkers in mixed groups reflecting the Slavic commune’s traditional practice of distributing harvest labor as well as bounty among the peasantry of the steppes. Their paintings are also among the first to realistically depict their subjects as individuals. Some contemporary viewers characterize these rural depictions of toil, revelry, and celebration as quaint. But the play of colors enlivening field labors enhances appreciation for the profound impact harvests past and present have had on the inhabitants of these places, whose work is the bedrock of any people’s prosperity. Art historian Neil McWilliam has written of the risks in offering commentary on the complex interplay of nineteenth century art, and presumably visual imagery from any period, with the era’s “social mythology.“

Gleaning’s Early Modern Revival

Through arrangements with the US Department of Agriculture made possible by my friend and fellow historian Alex McGregor of Colfax’s The McGregor Company, I was recently able to visit Washington, D. C. and document works of agrarian art in our national collections. Among many highlights was seeing the gritty paintings of 1930’s New Deal artists like Ben Shahn as well as classical European works. Among the most beautiful were paintings on exhibit in the National Gallery by Jean-Antoine Watteau who turned to prevailing art academy representations that emphasized the human form of workers rather than the conditions of their lives. Rembrandt van Rinj, Nicholas Poussin, and Bernard Fabritius also rendered the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz in exotic settings and costume with a sacred gravity far removed from the period’s gritty realities in rural Europe. Not until Enlightenment attitudes supplanted aristocratic sentiment were peasants more fully reintegrated with aspirations of the rising middle class through art and literature consistent with era’s ideals of fraternity, progress, and rights of the common man. Enlightenment literary attention to gleaning is also notable for its association with feminine aspects of harvest and the state’s professed benevolent concern for the destitute.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

USDA Whitten Building Entry Court; Washington, D. C.

Studies of customs and laws on gleaning challenge conventional interpretations that conflict over the poor’s harvest share arose with the emerging market economies of early modern Europe. But very few and obscure references to gleaning are found the late Roman period with the term virtually unknown in documents from the sixth century AD for the next six hundred years. References to the practice that emerge again in twelfth century English and French village by-laws regulate compensation of workers, describe limits to gleaning in village commons typically reserved as pasture, and are not explicitly associated with the poor. The raking of stalks missed by wielders of sickle and scythe had likely become one of the several steps embedded in the typical harvest cycle in which all able-bodied workers participated. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Ceres  (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Ceres (c. 1718); Commissioned for Pierre Crozat’s Paris Palazzo, oil on canvas, 55 ¾ x 45 ½ inches; Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

The dominant narrative has held that as private ownership of land and the enclosure movement weakened villagers’ traditional communal rights and the aristocratic great estates, capitalistic demands for productivity eroded moral commitments to the impoverished. But gleaning had become conventional harvest practice and had long since lost its distinct association with the indigent. Population increase since the seventeenth century and the growth of Europe’s cities created substantial numbers of landless poor. Rather than addressing the new realities with comprehensive interventions for public welfare, state officials variously enacted archaic gleaning laws that fomented conflict in the countryside instead of ameliorating needs of the dispossessed. Church leaders often invoked religious rhetoric to justify such government efforts by attempting to apply ancient Levitical imperatives and the story of Ruth to distinctly new economic realities emerging in Western Europe.

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.