Painting the countryside is documenting the history of land use and agriculture, and landscape painters are in an excellent position to see the revolution in both that has occurred over the last few centuries. In two articles this weekend, I look at how farming and its landscapes have changed, mainly in northern Europe, from around 1500 to the present.
The first agricultural revolution brought the transition from hunting for and gathering food to cultivating crops and raising livestock. This brought annual events such as the grain harvest, shown above in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565), and for animal fodder in his Hay Harvest (1565) below.
Although there were improvements in detail, such as the rotation of crops and selective breeding to increase yields, these processes remained largely unchanged until late in the nineteenth century. Charles-François Daubigny’s Harvest from 1851 is remarkably similar to Bruegel’s three centuries before.
The rural poor also changed little. Old Testament accounts of the underprivileged surviving by gleaning what’s left after the landowner had brought in their harvest continued well into the twentieth century. This is Léon Augustin Lhermitte’s account from 1887.
While much of the work of harvest remained intensely and exhaustively manual, some processes like the separation of grain seeds from inedible straw proved amenable to mechanisation.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Grain Threshers, Egypt (1859) shows this as one of the more traditional employments for animals, from ancient times.
By the end of the nineteenth century, animals and other sources of power were being used, as shown in Albert Rigolot’s painting of The Threshing Machine, Loiret from 1893, with a detail below. One of the early uses for steam engines was to power similar machines. The next step was to make those engines mobile under their own power, as traction engines.
Once the crop was harvested, that field proceeded to the next crop in its rotation, for which it required ploughing.
Teams of oxen then drew the ploughs through the soil, as shown in Rosa Bonheur’s Ploughing in Nevers, her first successful painting in 1849. Ploughing became one of the favourite themes of her early career. Faithful depiction of the teams of oxen is demanding on anatomical knowledge, and here incorporates fine landscape with rich colours and textures. Ploughing is also one of the most fundamental agricultural tasks, with extensive symbolism, including the combined teamwork of the ploughman and animals.