Looking at The Harvesters, the sixteenth-century masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, you become a pilgrim in Bruegel's world. Reveling in the small pleasures and surprises that populate quotidian lives, Bruegel reveals the connective tissues of our world, tying his subjects' lives together with small, echoing gestures. His tender, sometimes comic depictions of humanity make this painting timeless, and universally relatable. Producer Christopher Noey speaks with the Metropolitan Museum's staff about The Harvesters.
Christopher Noey, Producer; Thomas P. Campbell, Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Ryan Wong, summer college intern; Maryan Ainsworth, curator, Department of European Paintings; Keith Christiansen, chairman, Department of European Paintings; Dorothy Mahon, conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art
See The Harvesters up close on Google Art Project at the Met:
Christopher Noey: As director of the Metropolitan Museum, why is this painting so important to you?
Thomas P. Campbell: The Metropolitan has tens of thousands of works of art spanning five thousand years of human creativity. But, I think there are certain key pieces that stand out. The Harvesters is one of those pieces that speaks to everybody. Its timeless study of man in nature—it's both objective, but also deeply sensitive to the reality of life at the time it was painted.
Christopher Noey: When he painted The Harvesters, how did Bruegel accomplish this?
Ryan Wong: One becomes like a pilgrim in Bruegel's paintings. You enter these people's lives, and you travel in this landscape that he's constructed so marvelously. For example, this group we see in the lower right-hand corner is having their lunch break, and there are these amazing details, like the pears laid out in front of them that are coming from the tree that you can see just behind them. One figure climbs up into the tree to pick the pears as two figures below collect them, and probably bring them down to the foreground.
Christopher Noey: How does his composition draw you in?
Maryan Ainsworth: You're never allowed to stop and stay too long in one place. Suddenly you're on that road, down through that narrow path with the women who are carrying these bundles on top of their heads, and there you are joining the caravan there, going past the swimming pool.
Keith Christiansen: We find these scenes of monks who have stripped down, bathing in the pool, of kids playing a game of cock throw. And all of this is shown not with any sense of mockery, but with a real participation and the sense of the continuum of life. I love this woman with her cheese on her bread, sitting so perfectly upright. We know exactly that person.
Christopher Noey: So what was new about this picture when it was painted in the sixteenth century?
Keith Christiansen: It's a landscape that's really the first modern landscape in Western art. Bruegel has inserted a completely coherent middle ground, and it increases both our engagement with the landscape—he puts us into the landscape along with the peasants walking down those paths—and the sense of a measureable distance. And one really feels the heat of summer in this picture in a way that nobody had ever felt it, I think, before.
Christopher Noey: When he painted the picture, Bruegel was living in Antwerp. What was that city like in the sixteenth century?
Maryan Ainsworth: It was really the most important economic center of Western Europe. Where there was shipping, there was certainly a lot that was going on in terms of the agricultural world and selling not only locally, but abroad. And wheat of this type was a very highly prized commodity—you know, the gold of the earth, basically.
Christopher Noey: So, who chose the subject of this painting?
Keith Christiansen: This obviously was the choice of the patron, Nicholas Jonghelinck, who was deeply interested in classical literature and wanted something to decorate his villa outside of Antwerp.
Christopher Noey: But why would a wealthy patron want a picture of workers in the field?
Keith Christiansen: The framework is set up by the universal love throughout Europe for Virgil.
Christopher Noey: The classical Roman poet.
Keith Christiansen: He celebrates the landscape, and celebrates those who work the fields. I think it is a very strong reminder of when man and nature were much closer than they are today. Isn't this the way we all like to imagine the farmers at the green market? That those who are closest to nature are experiencing the truest life.
Christopher Noey: What about Bruegel's technique when he painted the picture?
Dorothy Mahon: I think that one can look, still, at this picture very closely, and still see the marvelously thin technique, the delicate technique, that Bruegel uses. You're practically seeing the white ground. Despite the fact that all pictures have changed over time, it still holds up and reads in the most marvelous way.
Christopher Noey: Nearly five centuries later, do you think the painting still has something to tell us today?
Ryan Wong: I've used this picture on my tours all of last summer, and I'm going to use it again this summer. And it's fascinating to me that nearly five hundred years after it was made, it still speaks to a general public.
Dorothy Mahon: For me, and I think for many people, it has a very calming effect. It has that sense of realism—we can identify with the summer, the heat, the wheat, playing games, sailing a ship. And I think that's one of the reasons why this picture says so much.
Christopher Noey: So what is a masterpiece?
Keith Christiansen: A masterpiece in painting is very much like a great, great novel. It takes you a place where you haven't been. It gives you insight into various aspects of life. It gives enormous pleasure. John Brealey, who was our paintings conservator, used to have a term for masterpiece. He called it a "life-changer." A life-changer is that you look at this and, from this point on, anytime you look at a field of wheat, this is the picture that's going to become the lens through which you see landscape. The life-changer. It changes the way you see life.