Painting the vegetable garden 2

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), October (1878), oil on canvas, 180.7 x 196 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

If the flower garden was the place for social gatherings and relationships, more everyday events occurred among the cabbages.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), First Steps (c 1858), black Conté crayon on paper, 32 × 43 cm, Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Laurel, MS. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean-François Millet’s First Steps (c 1858) shows one of the early milestones in a child’s life, as an infant is about to break free from mother’s arms and walk for the first time towards their father’s.

Aimé Perret (1847–1927), The Lettuce Patch (1893), oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The vegetable garden is also where we learn much about life, about the birds and the bees, of cabbages and kings. Aimé Perret captures this beautifully in The Lettuce Patch from 1893.

Growing vegetables successfully requires plenty of hard work. Root crops like potatoes are particularly demanding, and a staple in many diets across northern Europe.

Asai Chū (浅井 忠) (1856–1907), Vegetable Garden in Spring 春畝 浅井忠筆 (1889), oil on canvas, 84 × 102.5 cm, Tokyo National Museum 東京国立博物館 Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Asai Chū’s Vegetable Garden in Spring (1889) shows a gang at work in a field at the start of the growing season. For staple root crops such as potatoes, this practice was widespread, and a popular subject for social realist artists in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Jean-François Millet (1814–1875), Potato Planters (c 1861), oil on canvas, 82.5 x 101.3 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

During that century’s mass exodus into the cities, many left in the country were condemned to working from dawn to dusk in a back-breaking effort to save themselves from starvation. Jean-François Millet and others showed this in the harsh reality of Potato Planters from about 1861.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), October: Potato Gatherers (1878), oil on canvas, 180.7 x 196 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Wikimedia Commons.

What was sown or planted then has to be harvested, as shown in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s October: Potato Gatherers (1878). Although there are still smiles, those potatoes were going to keep those families from starvation through the coming winter.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Woman Lifting Potatoes (1885), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent van Gogh painted Woman Lifting Potatoes (1885) and similar scenes during his time in Nuenen, in North Brabant.

János Pentelei Molnár (1878–1924), The Potato Harvest (1901), oil on canvas, 79 x 109 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

János Pentelei Molnár’s The Potato Harvest (1901) takes this on into the early years of the twentieth century, in Hungary.

Émile Claus, Récolte des betteraves (The Beet Harvest) (1890), oil on canvas, 320 x 480 cm, Musée de Deinze et du Pays de la Lys, Belgium. WikiArt.
Émile Claus (1849-1924), Récolte des betteraves (The Beet Harvest) (1890), oil on canvas, 320 x 480 cm, Musée de Deinze et du Pays de la Lys, Belgium. WikiArt.

Across Europe, different crops brought similar scenes: here is Émile Claus’s The Beet Harvest (1890) in Belgium.

Leon Wyczółkowski (1852–1936), Beetroot Digging II (1911), oil on canvas, 64 × 78.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Leon Wyczółkowski’s Beetroot Digging II (1911) shows the beet harvest in Poland before the First World War.

Vegetables may be mundane, hard graft, and hardly suitable for fine art, but some artists in the more distant past incorporated them into more fantastic paintings.

Carlo Crivelli (c 1435–1495), The Virgin and Child (c 1480), on panel, 37.8 x 25.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Several artists have had peccadillos for particular vegetables: for Carlo Crivelli, it was cucumbers, with which he decorated his many otherwise fairly conventional paintings of the Virgin and Child.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593), The Vegetable Gardener (1587-90), oil on panel, 36 x 24 cm, Museo Civico “Ala Ponzone”, Cremona, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Most remarkable of all are Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s unique portraits, here of The Vegetable Gardener (1587-90), who confirms that we really are what we eat.