by Katherine Walker
22 January 2015
We often expect paintings to depict either a progression of time or a moment in stasis, particularly of a specific event. The portrayal is sequential; it’s frequently segmented spatially by panels in imagistic format, like the unfolding of narrative in novels and film. Linearity is comfortable, familiar. We apply this sequentiality even against the dictum that “art is timeless,” and we want to locate a specific time and calendarial base to the images we discuss. Yet Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565) is a diachronic portrayal of the producing and consuming of food, a clever statement by the artist that rather that ageless, “art is time-full.” The painting is innovative in Western art for several reasons, including the fact that it applies perspective to a naturalistic landscape and moves away from allegorical representations of the seasons. It relies on a rural rather than mythic portrayal of how those who are closest to their food are intricately bound to the rhythms of the natural world.
The fact that The Harvesters is part of a series of panels might belie my point. The other four we have extant today (one of the six is lost) also represent the seasons, with straightforward titles already suggestive of Brueghel’s aim to contain natural cyclicality within a six-paneled narrative. The other four, The Gloomy Day, The Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, and Haymaking also depict the lower classes’ seasonal tasks and intimate that the atmosphere of time closely shapes how villagers and farmers structured their lives in the sixteenth century.
But The Harvesters is also self-contained, closer to a Hardy novel than one of Trollop’s Barchester series. In the image, you see several processes of what are likely autumnal production practices occurring simultaneously. Men with scythes reap wheat, and one notices women in the back of the field carrying away the bundles that several figures in the right-middle foreground gather. In the immediate foreground these same individuals, noticeably dressed identically to working figures, consume a midday meal. As several critics have pointed out, these individuals eat the same pears that others collect to the right of the noon-day meal.
One of the many interesting facets of Brueghel’s painting, beyond its distinctly Renaissance move away from medieval iconistic depictions of time, is the culture of scientific and artistic innovation of which it became a part. This reading of the image, then, locates The Harvesters as firmly participatory in what we call the Scientific Revolution, or at the very least was integral to a culture open to reconceptualizing technology, nature, the seasons, and of course time. It is, although not apparently so, intricately bound in a rising awareness that time and nature are malleable or idiosyncratic.
Reading scientific novelty in a painting is nothing new (Holbein’s The Ambassadors or Durer’s Melancholia come to mind). But what about reading images that might strike us as nostalgic or even quaint as part of a growing technological and exploratory culture? That the painting ended up in the hands of Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, signals The Harvesters’ innovation and resonates appropriately with the image of production and intellectual curiosity that characterized the Emperor’s reign. Rudolph was an avid supporter of the arts and sciences, famous for his cabinet of curiosities, an early predecessor of the museum. Rudolfine Prague was a bustling, mercantile place, with Rudolph’s voracious appetite for artistic novelties and new experiments beckoning numerous scholars and craftsmen from around the Continent. The astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler stayed at Rudolph’s court. The Elizabethan magician John Dee visited in 1583 and conducted alchemical experiments for the court’s entertainment. Metalworkers, painters, and musicians flocked to this hub of cultural interchange.
Today, Rudolph II is famous for his kunstkammer or cabinet of curiosities. A repository—olio-esque as it was—of plants, abnormalities in nature (monstrous creatures for example), alongside coral, minerals, and artistic miniatures characterized these predecessors of the modern museum. Rudolph’s kunstkammer, however, was organized systematically in encyclopedic fashion. That Rudolph carefully cultivated his image as a patron of arts and sciences through this cabinet of curiosity needs no further explanation. But why, amid what was seemingly a culture of scientific and artistic progress, did images such as Brueghel’s find a home? What was it about this romanticized image of rural villagers to which an individual such as Rudolph II might have been drawn?
The answer, in part, is due to the notion of time and cyclicality inherent to Brueghel’s series and to Rudolph’s other interests as well. The kunstkammer was noticeably replete with images, animals, and minerals frozen in time. It’s no coincidence, either, that Rudolf is depicted by Arcimboldo as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. At the same time, scientific debate over how to measure seasonal regularity—whether that be via the Copernican or Ptolemaic system—pointed up the issue. Even in such a seemingly innocuous painting as The Harvesters, the question of time, and how one might manipulate it in representation, is central to how we approach it. Brueghel’s image, and its later place within Rudolph’s court, is a remarkable statement on the human ability to, while not precisely control, at the very least shape and have fun with time. The seasons, cyclicality and abnormality together, show much more than a simple process, an unambiguous unfolding. Instead, time is at once motionless and yet rendered just as supple as the clay molds artists used before casting metals. In Brueghel’s The Harvesters, time is compressed, expansive, and predictable all at once. The landscape is indelibly marked by the individuals who are, in turn, dependent upon the very processes of time that the image emphasizes. In Brueghel’s world, and in Rudolph’s, we have an indication that art can play with time, in a way that isn’t about timelessness but rather about how to understand, and mold, time within an aesthetic medium.
Katherine Walker is a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She serves as Editor of Ethos and the GPSF Vice-President of External Affairs. She researches early modern science, demonology, and folklore, looking particularly at how discourses of animistic or preternatural ecologies operate in drama.