The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s experts share their reflections on the Flemish masterpiece.

By The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Harvesters (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the ElderThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas P. Campbell,
Director of the Metropolitan Museum:

"The Metropolitan has tens of thousands of works of art spanning 5,000 years of human creativity, but I think there are certain key pieces that stand out.

The Harvesters is one of those pieces that speak to everybody."

"It is a timeless study of man in nature."

"It is object but also deeply sensitive to the reality of life at the time it was painted."

Maryan Ainsworth,

"You’re never allowed to stop and stay too long in one place."

"Suddenly you are on that road, down through that narrow path with the women who are carrying these bundles on the top of their heads…"

"… and you are joining the caravan there, going past the pool."

Keith Christiansen,
Chairman of European Paintings:

"We find these scene of monks who have stripped down, bathing in the pool..."

"Here, kids are playing a game of cock throw."

"All of this is shown not with any sense of mockery, but with a real participation and the sense of the continuum of life."

"Look at this woman..."

"… with her cheese on her bread sitting so perfectly upright."

"We feel like we know exactly that person."

Keith Christiansen,
Chairman of European Paintings:

"This is 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."

"One really feels the heat of summer in this picture in a way that nobody had ever felt it, in my opinion, before."

Maryan Ainsworth,

"Antwerp was the most important economic center of Western Europe.
There was a lot of shipping, with the agricultural world selling not only locally, but abroad. Wheat was a very highly prized commodity, it was the gold of the earth.”

Keith Christiansen,
Chairman of European Paintings:

"The subject of this painting 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."

"The framework is set up by the universal love throughout Europe for Virgil, the classical Roman poet.

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?
That those that are closest to nature are experiencing the truest life?"

Dorothy Mahon,

"One can look at this picture very closely and still see the marvelously thin, delicate technique that Bruegel uses."

"You are practically seeing the white ground. Despite the fact that the picture has changed over time, it still holds up and reads in the most marvelous way."

"For me, and for many people it has a very calming effect, with that particular 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."

Keith Christiansen,
Chairman of European Paintings:

"A masterpiece in painting is very much like a great novel.
It takes you to a place where you haven’t been.
It gives you insight into various aspects of life."

"John Brealey, who was our paintings conservator, used to have a term for
masterpiece. He called it “a life-changer.”
You look at this painting and from this point on anytime you look at a field of wheat, this is the picture that is going to become the lens through which you see landscape.
It is a life-changer : it changes the way you see life."

Credits: Story

Text excerpted from video transcript of "The Harvesters" by The Metropolitan Museum Art. 2010. The Metropolitan Museum of Art staff featured include: Thomas P. Campbell, Director; Maryan Ainsworth, Curator; Keith Christiansen, Chairman of European Paintings; Dorothy Mahon, Conservator.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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