Regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton portrayed art of the harvest
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 – Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Grandma Moses among them – 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 machines.
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 lives.
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. 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 (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 dinner.
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 his 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 father.
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 (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 (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 crews.
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.
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 self-taught 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 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.
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.