This panel is part of a series showing the seasons or times of the year, commissioned from Bruegel by the Antwerp merchant Niclaes Yongelinck. The series included six works, five of which survive. The other four are: “The Gloomy Day,” “Hunters in the Snow,” and “The Return of the Herd” (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); and “Haymaking” (Lobkowicz Collections, Prague). The Harvesters (and the others in this series) is arguably the first modern landscape in western Europe and represents the months of August and September. Bruegel suppresses any obvious religious pretext in favour of a new humanism, depicting a rustic peasantry, a timeless study of man in nature through an unidealised description based on natural observations.
It shows a ripe field of wheat that has been partially cut and stacked, while in the foreground a number of peasants pause to picnic in the relative shade of a pear tree. Work continues around them as a couple gathers wheat into bundles and three men cut stalks with scythes. The vastness of the panorama across the rest of the composition reveals that Bruegel’s emphasis is not on the labours that mark the time of the year, but on the atmosphere and transformation of the landscape itself.
You become a pilgrim in these people’s lives. The detail is amazing – the group in the lower right hand corner are having their lunch break, their food laid out before them, and we can see the pears they are eating have been collected by another character who is climbing a pear tree and shaking down the fruit in an other part of the painting. The composition draws you in – never allowing us to stop for too long in any one place as your eye leads you on to another scene. The narrow path between the corn takes us to the women in the middle distance carrying corn on their heads through the field, which in turn leads us further away to a pool where monks have stripped down and are swimming. Children are playing in a clearing. You can feel the heat of summer.
Bruegel was living in Antwerp when he painted this. It was the most important economic centre of Europe at that time. with shipping making important connections across the world. Farming is important not only locally, but transporting goods across the seas, especially wheat.
The subject was chosen by Yondelick who was deeply interested in classical literature and wanted something to decorate his villa. But why would a wealthy patron want a picture of peasants working in fields? A universal love of Virgil who celebrated the love of nature and those who worked the fields. A strong reminder of when man and nature where much closer together and those closest to nature experience the truest life. Bruegel turns the traditional view of peasant life on its head, previously always sidelined and corse, he makes their lives monumental and to be envied. The higher classes are diminished – the Castle hiding in the middle distance and the monks not praying but naked in a pool.
Bruegel is very delicate thin. When you look closely at the canvas you can see not only each stalk individually made but the under drawing – in the sleepers face and neck – and the lucidity of his brush strokes. Use this link to Google’s Art Project to zoom in and examine his style more closely.
The effect is very calming, you can feel the heat of summer and want to discover more about the scene. It gives us insight, takes us to a place we have never been to and wish we could enter.