In yesterday’s article, I showed a small selection of paintings of the main cereal harvest, several of which broached the subject of rural poverty. Whereas many paintings of the countryside give the impression that life there was idyllic, the reality was (and remains, in many cases) very different. This is even recorded in Old Testament times, in the story of Ruth and Boaz.
According to various sources in the Bible, Boaz was a wealthy landowner in Bethlehem. He noticed Ruth, a widow, who was in such difficult financial circumstances that she came to glean grain from his fields. Boaz invited her to eat with him and his workers, and started to deliberately leave grain for her to glean. Because they were distantly related, Ruth then asked Boaz to exercise right of kinship and marry her. They had children, and David was their great-grandson.
Gleaning is an act of sheer desperation, following the cutting and gathering of the harvest, by the painstaking task of collecting the small amounts of grain which were left by the harvesters. Its modern urban equivalent is dumpster diving (totting or skipping), only that is easier and far more productive. For the gleaner, though, it could make the difference between surviving the coming winter and dying of starvation.
For Summer, one his late masterpieces showing the four seasons, Nicolas Poussin chose the scene of Boaz discovering Ruth gleaning after the wheat had been cut in his fields. The pair are talking in the foreground, while behind them Boaz’s farmworkers are proceeding with the harvest.
The depiction of gleaning became widespread during the nineteenth century as rural deprivation worsened, and artists found a social role for their work.
In Samuel Palmer’s The Gleaning Field (c 1833), the local poor have moved in to gather any remains that they can salvage after the harvest.
Ruth and Boaz (c 1835–7) is one of George Frederic Watts’ earliest surviving paintings, which he started as he entered his training at the Royal Academy.
In 1854, Jules Breton returned to live in the village of Courrières, where he had been born, and started painting agricultural workers in the local landscape. His style changed dramatically, and the following year he enjoyed success with his first masterpiece, The Gleaners (1854), which won him a third-class medal at the 1855 Paris Salon. It shows the poor women and children out scrounging what they could from the fields after the harvest had been cut.
Overseeing this gleaning is the garde champêtre (village policeman), an older man distinguished by his official hat and armband, who was probably an army veteran. In the background, behind the grainstacks which were later to be such popular motifs for the Impressionists, is the village church tower, surrounded by its houses.
Breton had started to plan this painting soon after his return. He made a series of studies, several of which survive, for its figures, but the view appears to be faithful to reality. The figure of the young woman walking across the view from the right (in front of the garde champêtre) seems to have been modelled by the daughter of Breton’s first art teacher, whom he married in 1858. He sold this painting for the astonishing price of two thousand francs, which must have been strong endorsement of his change of genre and style.
Jean-François Millet’s hope for the Salon two years later was his substantial painting of The Gleaners (1857), which is completely different in concept. The distant wagon, grainstacks, and village may appear common elements, as are the three women bent over to glean in the foreground, but that is as far as the similarities go.
Millet’s composition is sparse, concentrating on those three figures. There are no distractions, such as the garde champêtre to add colour or humour: it’s all about poverty, and the sector of the population who just managed to survive each winter. It smacked of socialism, and unlike Breton’s painting it got the thumbs-down from both the rich and the middle classes who frequented the Salon.
Breton’s Calling in the Gleaners (also known as The Recall of the Gleaners, Artois) (1859) is one of the treasures of the Musée d’Orsay, and on its own almost justifies a visit to Paris. With the light now fading, and the first thin crescent of the waxing moon in the sky, the loose flock of weary women and children make their way back home with their hard-won wheat. At the far left, the garde champêtre calls the last in, so that he can go home for the night.
The contrast between the rich glow of the setting sun at the right and the figures is unfortunately too great for this image to capture. You really do have to see the original.
Walter Crane’s painting of Ruth and Boaz from 1863 shows them at the end of lunch, during her gleaning. Their dress is an odd composite of the Biblical and Arthurian. She’s looking down at her hands, as if contemplating grain held in her left palm. He has turned and looks towards her. In the background Boaz’s workers continue the harvest, and saddled horses are idle, a castellated house set in the crag behind them.
Although this has the look of an illustration painted in watercolour, perhaps destined for a children’s Bible, Crane apparently painted this in oils. His style lends it an air of unreality, a marked contrast to other paintings of gleaners at that time.
As with Breton and Millet before him, Lhermitte’s most enduring expression of rural poverty was in showing those too poor to afford their own grain purchases, and forced to salvage remains left in the fields after the harvest: the Gleaners, here his version of 1887.
Cowed (1887) might have been painted by Jules Breton or Jules Bastien-Lepage, perhaps, although it lacks the latter’s sense of extreme breadth of view. Superficially, it shows gleaners at work in a field after the harvest, but there’s much more to Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s story than that.
Being gleaners, the figures seen are among the poorest of the poor. The owner of the large farm in the left distance has gathered in their grain, and their harvesters have been paid off for their effort. Then out come the losers, to scavenge what they can from the barren fields.
The family group in front of us consists of three generations: mother is still bent over, hard at work gleaning her handful of corn. Her husband is taking a short break, sitting on the sack in his large blue wooden clogs. Stood looking at him is their daughter, engaged in a serious conversation with her father, as her young child plays on the ground.
The daughter is finely-dressed under her coarse gleaning apron, and wears a hat more appropriate to someone ‘in service’ as a maid, or similar, in a rich household in the nearby town. She looks anxious and flushed. She is almost certainly an unmarried mother, abandoned by her young child’s father, and it is surely she who is oppressed or ‘cowed’. Their difficult family discussion is being watched by another young woman at the far left, who might be a younger sister, perhaps.
The Impressionists seldom seem to have painted controversial social issues. One of the few exceptions to this proved a lesson for Camille Pissarro in the practicality of Divisionism. He started work on his intensely sensory and idyllic painting The Gleaners in early 1888, using a squared-up study in gouache to finalise his composition. He found the painting hard, and wrote that he needed models so that he could complete its detail.
It was finished a year later in 1889, when he set his price at a mere 800 Francs. Although it achieved that, by the time that framing and commission charges had been deducted, Pissarro received just 620 Francs from Théo van Gogh’s firm, although even he wasn’t reduced to gleaning to feed his family.
Emphasis on light and optical effects in Émile Claus’s Gleaners from about 1890 similarly played down any social message. This may have been in part a reaction against earlier Naturalism.
As Europe moved into the twentieth century, the plight of the rural poor was forgotten, and gleaning became increasingly unreal and romantic.
Shockingly, gleaners were still commonplace in the Essex grain fields at harvest time, trying to scrape enough waste grain from the ground to feed their families. In Sir George Clausen’s Gleaners Coming Home (1904), swirling brushstrokes make the gleaners’ improbably smart clothes appear to move as they walk home in the evening sunlight.
Clausen’s The Gleaners Returning (1908) is a marvellous contre-jour (into the light) view, again with swirling brushstrokes imparting movement in the women’s clothes, and no mention of their poverty.
Among the few who kept reminding the bright new century of its social woes was the ageing Naturalist painter Léon Lhermitte, whose Harvesters’ Pay (1882) had already brought insight into the condition of harvest workers.
Lhermitte’s Gleaners Near Haystacks (1912) shows a group of women gleaning, two of them almost bent double.
Even when he was well into his seventies, Lhermitte seemed able to find time and energy for just another painting of gleaners, in his Gleaning Women of 1920.
With the increasing depopulation of Europe’s rural areas, the introduction of mechanical methods of harvesting, and improving state welfare support, gleaning seems to have stopped by the middle of the twentieth century. The rural poor haven’t gone away, though, they’ve just become less visible.