Wheat is one subject portrayed timelessly in artworks going back to thousands of years before the Common Era. It can be found in early Mesopotamian art, Renaissance art, Impressionist art, and everywhere in between. Wheat was necessary for survival for centuries as people toiled away in the tedious process of harvesting the grain. People were also enslaved and new technologies were developed to maximize the gains made from wheat in order to survive. Because of this constant struggle, wheat has been portrayed in art for thousands of years by hundreds of cultures in order for viewers to truly grasp the importance of wheat to survival and the constant human struggle to maintain their societies.
The artworks in this exhibition all differ in time period, style, and medium, but they all share the motif of wheat. The centerpiece of this exhibition is a Dutch landscape by Jacob van Ruisdael appropriately titled, Wheat Fields. This oil painting portrays a man walking on a path in the midst of a vast field of wheat beneath an incredible and awesome sky. The following works of art differ greatly from Wheat Fields, but do share an important theme…
Artist unknown, Sample of Wheat Heads, 30 BC-364 AD
Wheat, Met Museum, 25.3.152
When the temple of Mentuhotep was excavated in Upper Egypt in 1923, among a plethora of ancient Egyptian art were heads of wheat presumably used as burial wrappings. When Mentuhotep was mummified, they lined the outside of the mummy with a layer of wheat heads, according to historians. This is quite a non-conventional way of using wheat in art. Ancient Egyptian kings were typically buried with treasures and riches so, adorning a mummy with wheat heads shows how important it was to Egyptian culture.
Artist unknown, Fragment of vessel with Wheat Stalks and procession of Bulls in relief,3300 BC
Limestone, Met Museum, 41.160.201
This piece was presumably made in southern Mesopotamia around 5000 years ago. Mesopotamia is also known as the Fertile Crescent because of the rich soil that lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Wheat was a staple in the ancient Mesopotamian’s food supply and was portrayed in artworks such as the aforementioned vessel and many others.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Oil on wood, Met Museum, 19.164
This painting is one of six that all depict a different time of year, the harvest season being portrayed in The Harvesters. It shows several peasants hard at work gathering wheat and several more gathered under a tree eating together. This painting seems to portray the unappreciated process of producing food and then the consumption of food.
William H. Martin, Harvesting Wheat in Iowa, 1909
Gelatin Silver Print, Met Museum, 2007.46.8
In this photo of early 20th century America in the Midwest, men are shown frantically gathering stalks of wheat. The stalks are noticeably taller than the men- about twice as high! This photo was taken shortly after a devastating drought hit the Midwest. Martin, the photographer, presumably took this photo to contrast the lifelessness of his earlier, drought-stricken photographs.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889
Oil on canvas, Met Museum, 1993.132
This is one of several oil paintings that van Gogh painted while he was in a mental asylum. They were presumably paintings of the view from windows in the building. In this painting, van Gogh uses mostly cold colors such as green and blue in the sky, trees, and mountains. The golden wheat field is an exception and stands out as a main focal point in this painting.