“...the peasants by Lhermitte...are so splendid just because of the life there is in them” (Vincent Van Gogh letter to Theo, 4 or 5 May, 1885).
Boussod, Valadon & cie, no. 23476 (acquired directly from the artist 2 June 1894 for 3500 francs)
William Schaus, New York (acquired from the above on 26 October 1894 for 7000 francs)
Dominion Gallery, Montréal
Jack Klein, Hampstead, Montreal
Monique Le Pelley Fonteny, Léon Augustin Lhermitte Catalogue Raisonné, Paris, 1991, p.113, no. 65, (illustrated)
Farm life in France during the 19th century stayed pretty much constant. The everchanging seasons provided specific labors of the months as had been documented by calendar pages from illuminated manuscripts centuries earlier. Like fellow artists, Jules Breton and Jean François Millet, Léon Lhermitte looked to scenes of rural life for his inspiration and they filled his artistic repertoire throughout his long career.
Late summer would have signified harvest time, and this is the scene depicted in our painting. One of the busiest times of the farm calendar, the harvest was when the wheat needed to be threshed, gathered and stacked. This late summer labor would have been a familiar sight for Lhermitte, and in fact, it was the subject for many of his pictures in oil, pastel and charcoal. Here, his two peasants work rhythmically as they cut paths through the windswept field, piling the stalks of wheat in bunches, ready to be bundled by their fellow workers who we can only imagine, while not visible in this picture, are also part of the scene observed by the artist. The sun shines brightly on the soft golden tips of the wheat in the distance.
Lhermitte was one of the most accomplished pastellistes of his generation, only rivalled by fellow artist, Jean François Millet. While our painting is done in oil, the brushwork of quick hatches and dashes of color, almost dry like a pastel crayon, reveals that Lhermitte’s pastel technique also transferred to his work in oil paints. Equally, many times his pastels are so complete they have the finish of what one expects to see in an oil painting.
Through successful marketing by his Paris dealers , Boussod & Valadon, Lhermitte’s pictures reached a wide distribution and he became commercially successful. In addition, prints were sold of his most well-known works. In fact, in 1885 Lhermitte illustrated a series of prints depicting the months of the year for the popular French magazine, Le Monde Illustré; each monthly issue was accompanied by a different peasant theme. In letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent van Gogh repeatedly asks Theo to send him the most recent copies of the magazine; he also wrote to Theo, “the peasants by Lhermitte.. are so splendid just because of the life there is in them” (Letter to Theo, 4 or 5 May, 1885).