Thursday, August 22, 2019

Harvesting History in a New Field

Time for a pop quiz!

Can you identify this item? Here is a hint. It is a trick question.

It is literally the kind of thing you might find on the wall at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

Most of us today have very little understanding of what it is, how it works or how it ties to our local and national historical landscape and artistic traditions. In this setting it is an obscure part of the jumbled decorative furnishings that have been relegated to the background. However, the item takes center stage in this painting by Winslow Homer completed in 1865, the year the Civil War ended.

The painting, with the intriguing title Veteran in a New Field, can now be found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For more on this painting see this link.

This painting conceals a one hundred fifty-four year old controversy about the object the farmer is holding in his hand and the crop he is harvesting. It also serves as a key to unraveling an ongoing mystery and a deep misunderstanding by art historians about our local landscape and its relation to larger trends of American art. The fact is that without this tool we would not have most of the famous so-called Hudson River School landscape paintings, many of which actually feature Conway and the White Mountains - the twenty-seven towns covered by the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room.

Most scholars discussing this image have explored its symbolic meanings, ranging from Isaiah 2:4 in the Bible, to the Roman legend of Cincinnatus, to George Washington's retirement, to the ancient image of the grim reaper and the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Instead, I focus on the actual activity and artifacts depicted. I would argue that new fields of study (crop identification and farm tool forensics) should be added to the curriculum at all art history programs. In fact, I would be happy to teach that class. Art history students are trained to distinguish between a Van Gogh and a Vermeer by studying a single square inch of paint on a canvas, but they often can't tell a depiction of hay versus grain in a scene showing a hundred acres of land.

So, our first question is what crop is being harvested here? The answer can be seen in the the color, character, and shape of the crop.

It is pretty clear that it is a grain, probably wheat, which is harvested when its large distinctive seed heads have matured to a golden brown, not hay which is cut when green.

The paradox is that the single-bladed scythe seen in the painting is for cutting hay, not grain. This was actually noted by a critic in 1865, the same year the painting was first displayed. The reviewer, quoted on page 434 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalog, questioned the accuracy of the painting and made the point that “ is with a cradle, and not with a scythe alone, that he should attack standing grain.” You can read this book online or even download a pdf copy of it from their website here.

Mistaking the hay harvest for a grain harvest is all too common in art history. There is an interesting essay about some of the mistakes or “missed stacks” found on the website "Hay in Art" at this link here. This fantastic website includes almost seven thousand examples of hay in art and places hay into a larger historical and geographical context.

While the tool should tell us, in this case it conveys a confusing message. Part of the problem is the way Homer depicted the harvesting tool. At first glance, this looks like a hay scythe with a single blade implying the crop is hay.

However, a closer look reveals a "ghost like" image of a cradle made of five wooden "fingers" attached to the scythe. Cradle scythes were used to harvest grain. Here is what a cradle scythe should look like.

The single metal blade cuts the stalks of the grain while the with wooden "fingers" cradle the cut grain so it may be carefully laid into piles so as not to dislodge the precious seed heads thereby prematurely separating the wheat from the chaff.

This leads us to our second question. Why does the cradle appear in such a haunting and obscured manner? Was the cradle added to the painting after it was first displayed as a response to that criticism as some argue, or was it original to the painting and removed by being painted over to enhance its aesthetic and symbolic power as others argue?

I have reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the hope that their scientific analysis can help clarify and confirm which option is correct. It is hard to tell from the pictures in the books. I will update this blog when I find out.

The Met catalog cited above was published in 1985 and explains on p. 434 that Homer "...provided the harvester's scythe with a cradle" indicating that he added it in as an attempt to make it more accurate and to match the crop depicted. Perhaps the paint has faded since then? There are some paint pigments known as "fugitive colors" that over time when exposed to sunlight, humidity or temperature changes can make the paint almost disappear. Did this happen here?

Ten years later, in 1995, Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Franklin Kelly took the opposite stance and argued that Homer intentionally painted the cradle out to make the image more symbolic (p. 24). They argue that the "...pigment that has become transparent over time reveals the cradled scythe that Homer deleted." You can check this book out from the Conway Public Library. 

They reasoned on the next page Homer "... saw, or soon concluded, that the image of the harvesting veteran could express something very much greater if he did not insist on the fact of agricultural technology: by the single-bladed scythe he made the veteran into a symbol of Death the reaper. And, by invoking an image that reminds us that the veteran peacefully harvesting grain was not very long before, in a familiar metaphor of war, a harvester of men. Homer charges his painting with vibrances of meaning that fact alone could not possibly convey."

Also in 1995 Nancy Rash wrote a "A Note on Winslow Homer's "Veteran in a New Field" and Union Victory" in the periodical American Art (Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 88-93). You can access it at this website.

She agrees (p. 88) that the cradle was painted over and states that the cradle is "... today visible in pentimenti, rather than the simple scythe Homer decided on in the end” suggesting that he painted over it removing the cradle to emphasize only the single metal blade.

Pentimenti can be defined as a visible trace of an earlier image beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. It indicates that the artist has changed their mind and painted over an earlier version of the image. The word comes from the Italian for repentance, from the verb pentirsi, meaning to repent.

Personally, I also think whether the cradle was painted in or painted out, whether it is an example of fugitive colors or pentimenti, I feel that the single-bladed scythe makes the composition and color arrangement stronger, simpler and more balanced. However, the tool still does not match the crop being harvested as seen today.   

Rash's artical also leads us to our third question when she mentions on the same page the the wheat crop that year was "... abundant enough to demand an up-to-date cradle scythe." Rash is not clear on where she got her info about the scythe not being “up-to-date.”

Our third question is about the chronology, possible evolution and relationship of the hay scythe and the cradle scythe. A number of sources in addition to Rash suggest that the single blade scythe was replaced by the cradle scythe in an example of technological evolution and that the single blade scythe was old-fashioned or obsolete in 1865.

A Met website refers to the tool as "old-fashioned" at this link here.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. and Franklin Kelly said that "Homer knew just as well as his critic did that by the 1860s a cradled scythe would have been used to harvest a large field of grain; that, after all, is what he originally depicted."

In John Casey, Jr's book New Men: Reconstructing the Image of the Veteran in Late-Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture (published in 2015 and available to read online here) on p. 53  states that “Art historian Mark Simpson notes in his analysis of the image that Homer had originally given the veteran a cradle scythe, a multi-bladed cutting implement that would have allowed him to collect the cut grain into sheaves rather than leaving it in a pile at this feet. At some point in the composition process, however, Homer decided to paint over the extra blades on the scythe, burying the veteran in a pile of grain. This decision on the part of the artist to turn away from strict fidelity to agricultural practices at the time reminds us that the painting is meant to be symbolic. Homer is less interested in the process used to harvest wheat in 1865 than he is in the fate of this representative man. Standing alone in a generic field of grain, the veteran in Homer’s composition embodies the thousands of other former soldiers coming home from war and searching for work.”

Based on an analysis of prints and books on farm tool history, I argue that it is not a question of chronology or evolution but rather form and function. My understanding is that the different types of scythes were simply tools for different crops. In a future blog we will explore more about the difference between these tools and crops.

In the mean time, please let me know what you think. For more details on this or any other historical subject in the White Mountains, contact us at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room. 

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