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The harvest by painters

Benjamin Ulmann. Entering sheep in the mobile pen for manuring the land. Photo: Georges Carantino

The harvest, a moment of strong symbolic value, the culmination of all the efforts required by the cultivation of cereals, a moment of mobilization of the entire village community, promise of bread for the year, has always been a privileged theme for the painters of rurality.

The view of the historian and museologist of the rural world on their works, very numerous especially in the nineteenth century, if it feeds on that of the historian of art, must seek, beyond, to identify the technical gesture, the tool and its mode of use. The big question for our museums is how these nineteenth-century works, which are meant to be realistic, can be a source for the history of agrarian techniques. How can they be used, linked to tools, rural vehicles, machines... and other iconographic, sound, archival sources, with the agronomic writings of the time by agricultural museums to make understand, in the most inclusive way possible, peasant work?

A beautiful research program that deserves a real debate within the AIMA, nourished by the necessary inventory of these rural realistic paintings of the nineteenth century that would offer a reference corpus!

Benjamin Ulmann. Ploughing heavy earth with a team of oxen. Photo: Georges Carantino

One example, taken among many others, will illustrate this point. Benjamin Ulmann, French painter active in the second half of the nineteenth century, official painter, with classical themes, Grand Prix de Rome ..., was also interested in peasant work.

At the request of his father-in-law, owner of a castle and an important agricultural estate not far from Versailles, he undertook the decoration of the large salon by making four important paintings illustrating, subject never treated, the operating chain of wheat production.

For this he observes throughout the year the work of the fields on the property.

Testimony of a history of techniques at a time of transition where machinery appears, testimony of the interest of a large liberal and progressive bourgeoisie for technical progress, the symbolic link of the fruiting of wheat and the development of finance, this series of four paintings has just been hailed and protected by a classification under the title of Historical Monuments. It is kept in the collections of the Rambouillet Museum.

Benjamin Ulmann. Loading the wreathes on the cart at field. Photo Georges Carantino

Four moments of wheat production in the Paris Basin in the last third of the nineteenth century have been chosen, each of these moments can be documented by the agronomic writings of the time: the fertilisation of wheat land after harvest by a flock of sheep of local breed thanks to the technique of parking, deep ploughing, with oxen, from heavy soil, the collection of wreaths thanks to a two-wheeled carriage, the gerbière, pulled by threelight horses, the threshing thanks to a "modern" thresher that is supposed to be powered by a steam engine and which is served by a multitude of agricultural workers.

Benjamin Ulmann. Threshing session. Photo: Georges Carantino

The study of the figurative objects, which can be found in the inventories of the castle farm, is essential in a view of museographic use of these works. Putting these objects in relation to the collections of agricultural museums next to the painter's workplace is enlightening.

We find, for example, the same gerbière cart in the collections of the Bergerie Nationale de Rambouillet, the same caravan of the shepherd and the same plough in the collections of the COMPA of Chartres...

All this testifies to the strong link established by the painter between his work and the reality of the terroir. All this should inspire the museographer of an exhibition that would bring paintings and objects closer to the harvest!

Georges Carantino

March 2022, member of AIMA


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