Agriculture as an Art Subject


By Victoria Chick


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Artist Victoria Chick discusses the history of agriculture in art. Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Spreaker, Podbean, or SoundCloud.


Agriculture has been an art subject since the Mesolithic period. In some eras since then it seems to have been prominent but, in most eras, rarely seen. We know everyone has to eat, so agriculture ought to be an important subject. But kings and emperors that historically have commissioned art have wanted themselves or events in their lives recorded. Leaders of religion have needed idols to worship or paintings and sculpture to help focus worship.

Paintings, where the primary subject is agricultural life, have been uncommon in most of art history. Historically, we see most art as an agricultural subject during times when people are the most in control of their own lives.

The first artists to record agricultural activity were painters. Their subjects were the first domesticated animals. Cattle and goats were depicted alone or sometimes with herdsmen. Stylized pictographs on rock walls in shallow caves or plastered walls in areas from Turkey to the Sahara were done from 8000 to 3000 B.C. during the transition time from people living nomadic lives as hunter-gatherers to settling in communities to raise crops and livestock. This was a time when agriculture also influenced design. The practice of growing crops in rows, as well as regular patterns in weaving wool and flax for cloth, influenced the repetitive decoration of pottery, plastered walls, and jewelry making.

After the Neolithic period, agriculture was not emphasized in art for many centuries. This was a period of empire-building in the Middle East. Strong kings used artists and sculptors to depict their conquests. Goddess images representing fertility, related to agriculture, were common, but agricultural sculpture or painting was not. Exceptions were Egypt and Crete, two ancient civilizations where cattle and crops were depicted in frescoes. In Egypt, the paintings showed how cattle were used to provide food, power for plowing and grinding grain into flour. The frescoes were painted on the tomb walls of Egyptian royalty. In Crete, the artwork seems to indicate bulls had a religious significance and were pictured as part of a ritual, not in an agricultural sense.

Another absence of agricultural art occurs during the Persian and Greek Empires. A few relief sculptures showing oxen used for plowing remain from the Roman Republic. Then, the crumbling of the Roman Empire with subsequent poverty and fear resulted in the restructuring of society into local medieval fiefdoms during the Middle Ages. This period occurred from about the 5th century to the 14th century and is sometimes called the “dark ages”.

The Italian peninsula was the first area in the late Middle Ages to develop towns that were representational republics, and we see agriculture once again displayed in art.

  • Among the Vines Louveciennes (1874) - Alfred Sisley
    Among the Vines Louveciennes (1874) - Alfred Sisley


During the early Gothic period in Italy, a visual overview of agricultural land with vineyards, crops, and animals was depicted in two frescos. “The Effects of Good Government in the Country” and “The Effects of Bad Government in the Country” were painted from 1338 to 1339 on the walls of the governing council meeting room of the Palazzo Publico in the Town of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Another leap for agriculture in art occurred from 1412 to 1416 in France.

The Limbourg brothers were commissioned by the French Duc de Berry to produce a private devotional book. In the calendar section of the book, they used egg tempera to illustrate scenes representing activities for each of twelve months. Seven of the twelve scenes had agriculture as a subject. We see plowing, planting, blossoming orchards, harvesting, picking fruit, using hogs to find truffles, and fallow fields. These paintings are done in the context of a medieval social structure where the peasants worked the land in return for a portion of the produce and the protection of the Lord. The castle in the background emphasizes this relationship. The illustrations in the book are meant to remind Duc de Berry of his responsibility to the peasants. But agriculture was largely ignored by most artists of the 15th and even the 16th century when religious and mythological paintings, as well as portraits of wealthy patrons, were dominant.

 The Dutch painters of the 17th century were the first to develop purely agricultural subjects in their paintings. This was a result of a new republican form of government without a king, complimented by a reformed religious experience that had rejected Catholicism and, with it, religious images. Prosperous tradesmen and farmers became the new consumers of art. Paintings were commissioned of prize livestock. Artists also began to paint for their own pleasure and many landscapes were produced which included farmland.

It was not until the late 18th century that agriculture became a more common European painting subject. One reason for this is the French Revolution which changed the art market in France. Gone was the demand for portraits of royalty as well as the market for religious art. The “common man” was elevated and celebrated in humble work. We see this in paintings such as Millet’s “The Gleaners”.

The English Industrial Revolution saw thousands of rural people move to the cities to begin working in factories. Slums developed and so did disease from unsanitary conditions. By the mid-1800’s country farms had become romanticized in people’s minds as places of peace, cleanliness, and healthful living. English artist John Constable’s paintings of idyllic farm scenes reflected these views.

American painting of the 1700s and early 1800s was still a mirror of English painting. Portraits, historical scenes, and patriotic themes predominated. It was not until the mid-19th century that painters began to feature activities in agricultural settings. Eastman Johnson and William Sidney Mount are two painters from this period who idealized agricultural life in a realist style. There were also a great number of untrained American painters in the late 18th and 19th centuries that produced paintings of farm life. Their unsophisticated style has been called primitive or folk art and is usually characterized by a lack of linear or atmospheric perspective and colors that tend to be unmixed. Grandma Moses is the most familiar American painter in this style. Although she was born in 1860, she did not begin painting until the 20th Century.

At the same time the Industrial Revolution was going on in England, France, and America, a group of artists in France were changing the way they looked at things. They were the Impressionists and were interested in the way the light reflected off surfaces. Because they painted out of doors, it is not surprising that many of their subjects were agricultural. Monet’s “Haystack” series is the best known, but Monet and Sisley painted orchards in bloom as well as gardens.

The Post Impressionists followed the Impressionists in the 1890s. Van Gogh used his expressive style in numerous paintings depicting agriculture in Belgium and France. Orchards, vineyards, olive trees, flower, and wheat fields were all subjects in which he found an agricultural organization that allowed him to express his inner feelings.

The end of the 19th century in the United States saw many artists produce paintings and sculptures of cowboys doing ranch work. These subjects were easy for westerners to relate to and were enjoyed as well by easterners who found the subjects exciting and romantic. This type of art was popular all through the 20th century and continues today.

Modernism, in which simplified shapes were used, was a style from the 1920s into the ’40s. Charles DeMuth emphasized the bounty of American agriculture through his Cubist-inspired paintings of large silos. Other artists, like Blanch Morgan, preferred the curves of rolling hills in farm landscapes.

Artists involved in the government’s WPA art programs of the mid-1930s often reflected rural farm life and landscape. As the economy began to recover, many of the artists began working with private printing companies. Lithographs, etchings, and woodcuts depicting agricultural scenes continued to be produced and to sell well. Many artists from this time also made paintings for a new phenomenon – companies trying to maintain loyal customers by giving them illustrated calendars. “Calendar Art” was looked down upon by the New York establishment but filled a need for a still rural American population. Pictures of farm work, rich land, and well-maintained farmsteads and ranches elevated pride in this lifestyle to those involved. Illustrations for magazines that appealed to farmers and ranchers were other avenues in which artists used agricultural subjects.

Fine artists today also incorporate the farm landscape. Wayne Thiebaud is a contemporary painter and printmaker who returned to landscape with bird’s eye view images of mans’ agricultural crop growing imprint overlaying earth’s structure.

In a way, the reasons people desire and even need art have not changed; The size and cost of the art changes but, from the first Mesolithic herdsmen to the Dutch farmers, English city dwellers, and down to calendars on the walls of 20th-century farmhouses, the impulse of those who produce food to have art reflecting the agricultural lifestyle and the appreciation of that lifestyle by the average person have been important driving forces in its enduring use as a subject.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at   

Artist Victoria Chick


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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico

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