Art and Harvest

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Right: Thomas Hart Benton’s Threshing Wheat, circa 1938-39, egg tempera and oil paint. It is on display at the Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Ind.
Right: Thomas Hart Benton’s Threshing Wheat, circa 1938-39, egg tempera and oil paint. It is on display at the Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Ind.
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Below: Dinner for Threshers by Grant Wood.
Below: Dinner for Threshers by Grant Wood.
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Above: Steam Power by Lavern Kammerude.
Above: Steam Power by Lavern Kammerude.
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Opposite page: Art by W.R. Leigh, 1903, frontispiece for Gilson Willets’ book Workers of the Nation, Vol. 2. (Image courtesy Robert T. Rhode.)
Opposite page: Art by W.R. Leigh, 1903, frontispiece for Gilson Willets’ book Workers of the Nation, Vol. 2. (Image courtesy Robert T. Rhode.)
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Right: Dinner for the Threshing Crew by Lavern Kammerude.
Right: Dinner for the Threshing Crew by Lavern Kammerude.
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The Thrashers by Anna Mary Robertson Moses.
The Thrashers by Anna Mary Robertson Moses.

Paintings of farm engines explore dynamic
change in the heartland of America with brush and color, as potent
testaments to the power of the steam engine upon a canvas that is
America. Various artists personally witnessed the steam revolution
in farming communities where work was accomplished communally with
the might of steam threshing engines. These artists lived before,
during and after the proliferation of the steam engine. And because
they were born into or experienced life in rural villages, they
were ideally positioned to interpret the impact of steam threshing

Their art is often referred to as Regionalist; it is alternately
praised and scorned as the values of Americans wax and wane between
those of a global America obsessed with pop culture, and those who
appreciate health, home and the hard work that provides a sense of
self-worth and community. Michael Hall, author of Picturing
Myth and Meaning for a Culture of Change
, describes
regionalists as “painters committed to an idea of American art as
figurative/narrative/landscape expression fully pluralistic,
democratic and populist in outlook.” The essence of the populist
outlook Hall refers to is of working men and women who harnessed
the power of the steam engine in a collaborative effort to work
their farms for the sake of achieving modest prosperity. Their
endeavors are depicted by Thomas Hart Benton, Lavern Kammerude,
Grandma Moses and Grant Wood through colorful, passionate paintings
that capture the impact of steam threshing power on their

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) is renowned for his ability to
present the labors of the common man, a fact that is evident in his
painting Threshing Wheat (opposite page). In this
painting, Benton juxtaposes the machine and the horse in a harvest
scene: The golden wheat, blue sky and white mountains of fair
clouds frame the labors of men while the black smoke that billows
from the threshing machine snakes across the horizon. Light and
darkness convey a poetic dichotomy of the revolution that is the
machine. The painting dramatizes the social and environmental
changes Benton perceived, and contains cultural commentary typical
of his works.

A native of Missouri, Benton studied and traveled extensively,
producing canvases labeled Modernist until he returned to his roots
to provide artistic studies of the social contexts of America. He
shared his passion for exploring the American experience through
varied historical presentations, and he shared his vision of
capturing that history with other artists.

Grant Wood

Grant Wood (1891-1942) studied art with Benton at the Art
Institute of Chicago. Wood was a focused artisan who witnessed the
steam era’s peak and descent, and, to the nation’s benefit, he was
born with an inclination for drawing. He grew up in Iowa, where he
spent most of his life and gained an accurate historical background
for his paintings. He spent his life developing his artistic career
through varied pursuits that honed his talent for capturing life in
rural Iowa, including the steam threshing era.

The three-panel oil painting Dinner for Threshers
presents the real life of threshers returning from the fields,
followed by wagons hauling the bundles of grain to be threshed. The
painting was completed in 1934 and appears to depict a scene from
the year after his birth: 1892 is painted on the barn.

The shadows of chickens in the barnyard are cast underneath
them. It is high noon – dinner time. The threshers can be seen
cleaning up for dinner, washing from their heads and necks the
itchy chaff that had sifted into their hair and skin. Washing up
makes them not only more comfortable, but also more presentable for

Gathering around a large table that stretches across the dining
room, the group waits for food to be served by the women of the
house – their day-long labor ready to be consumed. The dinner table
can scarcely accommodate the workers arriving from the fields. Some
may have to wait for a seat at the table or take a plate outside to
the barnyard. In the kitchen, women prepare food and bring it to
the table warm and plentiful. The detailed nickel-plated stove
makes clear the social status of these women.

Grant Wood often said he included family and friends in this
paintings. In the barnyard a blond-haired youth carries a bucket of
fresh water for the cleansing of the threshermen. This could be
Wood’s brother Frank, who would have been about the age of the
young man. With a very natural appearance, a woman stands behind
the dining room table. Her placement in the painting suggests an
important figure – perhaps she is Wood’s mother. At the center of
the crowded table a man sits on a stool with a red cushion. This
differentiation makes the figure significant – maybe this is Wood’s

Wood reminisces in the positive portrayal of family in the steam
threshing era, and shows the era as a time of establishing a
community among strangers that is as compelling as the ties of
family. Of his work, Wood said, “I had in mind something which I
hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America – the picture
of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely lovable nation,
infinitely worth any sacrifice necessary to its preservation.”

Lavern Kammerude

Lavern Kammerude (1915-1989) also chronicled life in the steam
threshing era. Kammerude was born on a farm near Blanchardville,
Wis., and left school after eighth grade to work on the family
farm. For years he worked two farms doing what he called “plain old
farming.” Though Kammerude started drawing at a young age, he did
not begin to paint in earnest until the early 1960s.

When Kammerude took a job at a parts store in town, he was able
to spend his evenings painting. Soon he found that many people were
interested in his detailed scenes of a bygone era, and he began to
sell his works in the 1970s. Kammerude might be called a diarist,
an artistic commentator on the social and cultural contexts of the
Wisconsin farming community of his youth. His paintings might be
considered simply observations of life, but they are fine
observations to share. Kammerude lets viewers feel the idyllic
warmth of community through his painting of Dinner for the
Threshing Crew
and invites them to celebrate the neighborly
labors of harvest, eased with the help of the machine, as portrayed
in Steam Power.

In Dinner for the Threshing Crew, viewers feel the
relaxed camaraderie of men and women relieved of their work to
engage in friendly conversation that is a prelude to a meal. Men
gather under the generous shade of a tree in front of a humble
farmstead; the harvest machines rest in the field while these men
relax before they take their dinner. The soft greens and browns of
the landscape, the bright blue sky and rust colored barn create an
achingly inviting scene of refreshing simplicity and beauty.

Steam Power places the machine front and center,
dominant over laboring men, horses and scraggly farm dogs. The
black smoke billows – the might of the machine loosed only through
the control of the operator. Not nearly as inviting as the shady
rest of dinner time, the white-hot sky beats down on the figures of
men working the thresher. This is the struggle that brings friends
and neighbors to labor and celebrate together.

William Robinson Leigh

William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955) is often referred to as the
“Sagebrush Rembrandt” for his paintings of the American West
rendered with European technique. Leigh’s illustration Machine
Harvesting and Threshing in the West
captures vividly the
steam-powered threshing machine and the energy of threshing

Drawing on an American scene much farther east than his renowned
works of cowboys and Indians in desert canyons, Machine
Harvesting and Threshing in the West
provides a detailed and
colorful scene dominated by a strawburning, return-flue
Buffalo-Pitts traction engine. Portraits of more than 20 men are
placed throughout the scene, stoking the engine and reaping,
hauling and feeding bundles of grain. The energy of the men in the
scene is reflected even in the billowy clouds that seem to move
across the sky above them, enlivened by the wheat chaff that seems
to bend and blow about their boots.

Anna Mary Robertson Moses

If the people who live through history are best equipped to
share it, then Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) was well
equipped indeed. Known as Grandma Moses, she began her career as a
painter in her 70s without formal education or training. Moses
turned to painting when advancing arthritis made it difficult to
pursue her love of embroidery. Her artistry is pure memory,
delivering to us a personal history of her experiences in the steam
threshing era in Upstate New York.

Her career as a painter was wildly successful, enhanced by the
fact that she was completely selftaught and self-directed, and at
an age that was stunning confirmation of latent talent.

In The Thrashers we find the work of a diarist or folk
artist. The painting can be studied from the perspective one might
consider in a patchwork quilt. The warmth of the wheat, homes and
barns contrasts with the coolness of the blue sky and frothy green
tree tops in an idyllic scene that celebrates the blessing of work.
The painting conveys a community of work, and provides allusion to
people blessed with land to work in harmony with friends and
neighbors – and with the help of machines and animals, to realize
an unpretentious wealth. Grandma Moses’ vision of America is
hopeful and wholesome.

The Artists

The artists who depicted America in paint provide us with a
visual method of experiencing the poetic historical and cultural
memory that was the steam threshing era. Thomas Hart Benton said,
“My American image is made up of what I have come across, of what
was ‘there’ in the time of my experience – no more, no less.” The
same might be said of Kammerude, Moses and Wood. Perhaps they will
ultimately be revered by another generation of Americans who long
for the antithesis of the artificiality of modern life, a
genuineness represented through the genius of regionalist art.

Students Jean Reynolds and Bonnie Sheehy attended Robert
T. Rhode’s seminar at Northern Kentucky University on the
literature and the history of the steam-power era, and spent the
2005 fall semester researching and composing this article. E-mail
Jean Reynolds at:; and Bonnie Sheehy at:


The authors wish to thank the museums and custodians of works
for permitting reproduction of paintings in their collections. Fine
Arts Museums of San Francisco, Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Grandma
Moses Properties and the Wisconsin Historical Society have supplied
images; and permissions have been graciously extended by Edward
Kammerude and The Visual Arts and Galleries Association (VAGA).

We owe our discovery of the threshing scene of W.R. Leigh to
John H. White, Jr., former chairman of industries and historian at
the Smithsonian. Thanks to Dr.Thomas McGovern, Fine Arts Chair,
Northern Kentucky University, for sharing his professional insight
on the artists and their works. We are grateful to our professor,
Dr. Robert T. Rhode, who generously shared his own research with us
and supported us with kind advice and gentle guidance.

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