Oil on wood
46 1/2 x 63 1/4 in. (118.1 x 160.7 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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"Bruegel is the most deceptive of the old masters; his work looks so simple, yet is infinitely profound. The Harvesters is one of a series of paintings representing the months. Five of the series remain, and in Vienna, you can view three of them on one long wall in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which is lucky enough to own another eleven of Bruegel's paintings, representing nearly a third of his surviving works). Seeing the three in all of their majesty - each a world in itself - made me doubt Bruegel's wisdom in attempting a series. Each one is overwhelming, though it is easier to feel its impact than to explain it.
"The Harvesters is basically, I think, a visual meditation on the near and the far. The near is the harvesters themselves - painted as only Bruegel can paint. He shows us real people: the man slumped with exhaustion, or intoxication; the hungry eaters; the men finishing off their work before their noontime break. Yet he caricatures them just slightly. He sees a woman with grain-like hair, and women walking through the fields like moving grain stacks. He smiles, but he also sighs. There is not a sentimental hair on Bruegel's paintbrush, but nobody has more compassion for the harsh life of the peasant. His faces are those of people who are almost brutalized - vacant faces with little to communicate.
"He sets this "near" in the wonder of the "far": the rolling world of corn and wood, of small hills spreading in sunlit glory to the misty remoteness of the harbor. Into this distance, the peasants disappear, swallowed up. They cannot see it, but we - aloft with the artist - can see it for what it is: the beautiful world in which we are privileged to live. He makes us aware not just of space, but of spaciousness - an immensely satisfying, potential earthly paradise. No other landscape artist has treated a landscape with such intellectual subtlety, yet Bruegel states nothing. He simply stirs us into receptivity."