Outside of the winter, there are few times of the year when there aren’t crops for harvest. But in much of Europe and North America it’s this time, the end of the summer, that some of the most important staple crops are brought in, particularly wheat and other cereals for breadmaking. It’s this which is usually seen as the main harvest, the time when farmers and country people know whether the coming winter will be comfortable or frugal.
This weekend I’m celebrating the main cereal harvest in two groups of paintings: today’s show the harvest in general, and tomorrow’s looks at the poorest who have to glean for their grain, to avoid starvation.
One of the earliest visual encyclopaedias on the grain harvest is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Harvesters from 1565. The detailed activities of the harvesters in the foreground are quite plain, whether they’re cutting the corn (on the left) or enjoying a meal under the pear tree (centre and right), and the detail and narrative extends far beyond into transportation and storage.
James Ward’s paintings are now little-known, but he anticipated some of the advances made later by John Constable. Ward’s The Reapers (1800) shows the squire and his wife, who have ridden out to inspect progress with the harvest. Behind them, his landscape is far more than a mere backdrop to the figures and animals, with careful play of the light from his subtle sky, on the fields, hills, and distant village. In the foreground, note the mother handling cut sheaves as she looks at the young infant asleep opposite.
Though his early finished paintings may have lacked originality, Ward also produced some superb oil sketches, which bear comparison with those of Constable. A Harvest Scene with Workers Loading Hay on to a Farm Wagon (c 1800) was painted on a small panel, using high chroma colours, particularly in the foreground.
Samuel Palmer’s eery nocturnes include The Harvest Moon (c 1833), showing many workers in a corn field under the light of a full moon, which is seen low in the sky and to the left of centre. The workers, many or all of them women, are seen cutting the corn into stooks, some of which are piled high on a cart drawn by oxen towards buildings tucked away in a bank of trees. That bank, behind the field, opens out on the right to show a winding river. The constellation Ursa Major (the Plough) is shown low in the sky above the river on the right, its stars burning brightly.
The pre-Impressionist Charles-François Daubigny’s first real success in the Salon came in 1852, with The Harvest (1851), now in the Musée d’Orsay. His use of colour anticipated the changes to come in Impressionism, although the fine detail is more akin to Naturalism.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, with the cities growing fast and stripping the country of its younger and more productive people, rural poverty became a popular theme among painters, and social realism reached the Salon.
Jules Breton didn’t show The Burning Haystack (1856) at the Salon, but in London, after it had already been sold. It shows the frenetic but co-ordinated efforts being made by the people of the country village of Courrières to extinguish a fire which has broken out in one of the grainstacks. Each of its multitude of figures is playing their role as part of the whole, working from an unseen script.
In England, John Linnell painted The Harvest Cradle in 1859. It’s an ingenious rustic scene, in which the children of those cutting wheat are tucked up in freshly-cut stooks, just like the infant in Ward’s painting nearly sixty years earlier.
Linnell painted Wheat in about 1860 for the dealer Thomas Agnew. It was shown at the Royal Academy shortly after completion, then at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867.
Léon Lhermitte’s best-known painting, The Harvesters’ Pay from 1882, is an unusual take on the harvest. Although there are a couple of cut sheaves of wheat at the lower right, it concentrates on its economic and social aspects. Four of the harvesters, bearing their heavy-duty scythes, await payment by the farmer’s factor, who holds a bag of coins for the purpose.
In the centre of the painting, one of the workers is counting out his pay in front of his wife, who is feeding a young infant at her breast. To their left, another worker just sits and stares blankly into the distance, dead-beat tired and wondering whether his pittance was worth all that effort. Life was hard.
In the summer of 1885, the Danish artist LA Ring got his brother to model for his “monument to the Danish peasant”, Harvest, which he later copied in a smaller pastel. Ole Peter Andersen is seen working on his farm near Fakse, on Sjælland (Zealand), amid seemingly endless wheatfields. He swings his scythe with arms which billow beyond normal length, his right shoulder dropped away almost to nothing.
Anna Ancher, the wife of Danish painter Michael Ancher, caught this procession of Harvesters on their way to their work in 1905, near her home in Skagen on the north tip of Jylland (Jutland).
Adrian Stokes had further to travel for this golden view of Harvest Time in Transylvania (c 1909), one of many paintings which he and his wife made of their protracted visits to Eastern Europe.
Félix Vallotton’s The Sheaves from 1915 is one of his moving and symbolic images of the Great War. It’s late summer, harvest time, and the ripe corn is being cut and stacked in sheaves. But where are those farmworkers, whose rakes rest against the sheaves, and whose lunch-basket sits on the ground ready to be eaten? Where is the wagon collecting the harvest, and why is the white gate in the distance closed?
My final painting of this small selection is perhaps its most curious. It’s one of the Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup’s views of life in the remote countryside.
By local tradition, cut corn was not left to dry in low stooks, as in most of Europe and America, but built onto poles. In a series of paintings and prints, Astrup developed these Corn Stooks (1920) into ghostly armies standing on parade in the fields, the rugged hills behind only enhancing the feeling of strangeness.