November 05, 2003

Missed stacks and mistakes: distinguishing between hay and straw and other heaps.

Monet. Haystacks at Giverny, 1885.Monet. Grainstacks, 1890. Because very few artists and art historians were also farmers, many of the so-called “haystacks” in western art actually depict stacks of wheat or other grain crops. For centuries before the hay-baler and combine-harvester dropped bales of similar dimensions in hayfields and wheat-fields, haymaking and harvesting created very different landscapes. In many parts of the world they still do.

Hay was cut from green grass with a scythe, laid in parallel windrows on the ground, dried and turned with hand-held or horse-drawn rakes after a few days of sunshine, raked by hand or horse-drawn sleds into “cobs” or “cocks” or head-high stacks in the field for further drying, then carted to the farmyard or barn where they were made into more durable ricks or stacks out of the weather’s way.

Grain crops were cut with scythe or sickle when the plants had already turned from green to gold; the fallen plants were immediately bundled into a sheaf, tied with a few straw stalks; then six to eight sheaves were leaned against each other to form a reasonably weather-proof stook or shook, which stood in the field until the sheaves were carted off to compose larger even more rain-resistant stacks, grain-ends in, cut-stalks out, either in a barn or left out in the fields.

Monet's Meules

The French meule can refer to either stack, but even a cursory examination of Monet’s famous meules (often casually translated as “haystacks”) reveals the essential differences between meules de foin and meules de grain. The latter cereal stacks, made of sheaves often used to be thatched as protection against the autumn rains and continued to stand in the fields through the winter months until the threshing (separation of grain from straw) was done, usually by the early spring. Many of Monet’s meules are highlighted with snow, and all of these and the other tidy cones in varying lights and seasons are grainstacks. His haystacks are relatively few, always done in the dappled light of summer, and to be even more precise, they are haycocks, small, shaggy, temporary heaps of hay, soon to be carted off to the farmsteads of Giverny. Here are some of his true cocks or stacks of hay:

Haystacks at Chailly at sunrise
Haystacks at Chailly at sunrise. 1865

And here is a representative sample of Monet’s more than thirty grainstacks, al from 1890-1891, justifiably more famous in the larger story of Western art:

monetwheatstacks.jpgmonetshad.jpg monetsnow.jpg monetmatin.jpg monetboston.jpg

Pairs of Paintings

Our database of hay paintings generally excludes other crops, except for the purpose of illustrating contrast in paired paintings:

Limbourg Brothers. Book of Hours, c. 1440
June - haymaking
Limbourg Brothers. Book of Hours, c. 1440
July – harvest

Bruegel. Haymaking 1565

Bruegel. Harvesters 1565

Haymaking by William Carlos Williams

The living quality of
the man's mind
stands out

and its covert assertions
for art, art, art!

that the Renaissance
tried to absorb

it remained a wheat field
over which the
wind played

men with scythes tumbling
the wheat in

the gleaners already busy
it was his own

the patient horses no one
could take that
from him

Thanks to the Harry Rusche an English professor at Emory University for juxtaposing
Williams' brilliant but mistaken conflation of hay and wheat with the haymaking image.

George Stubbs. Haymakers. 1785
George Stubbs. Reapers. 1785

Against the Grain

Our exclusion of the thousands of images of grain harvest scenes is pragmatic but regretful, since many of them, often mistakenly titled, depict harvested field patterns of stooks with great rhythmic appeal, and towering wagon-loads of sheaves and grainstacks even more architectonic than their hay equivalents.

Luttrell Psalter. “Harvest waggon” c1335-40.
N dell’Abbate “Le Vannage du Grain”
J F Millet “Autumn, the Haystacks” 1874
J J Veyrassat “Chargement de la Charette” Late 19th cent.
G Houston. “Landscape with haystacks” Stooks! 19th cent?
C Pissarro “Peasants and Haystacks” 1878
G Caillebotte. “Landscape with haystacks” c1874
E Bernard. “Moisson au Bord de la Mer”1891 Stooks?
L Lhermitte. “Gleaners” 1922

Hay in the Manger and Straw on the Floor

Hay, of course, is fodder for the animals; and straw is the inedible waste-product remaining after the grains have been beaten from it. The content of the great round bales in today’s landscape are not so easy to distinguish as the artifacts of harvest fields used to be, especially since the residual stubble of modern hay crops (such as alfalfa and Lucerne) may be as crisply regular as the chopped stalks of wheat or oats. But hay and straw both used to go into winter stables. When we look at old paintings of the interiors of stables, for example, in the hundreds of depictions of Christ’s Nativity or the ensuing Adorations of Shepherds and Kings or Magi, we can reasonably infer that if that straw-like material is in the manger, it’s hay, and if that hay-like material is on the floor, it’s straw (on the roof, it’s straw or reeds).

Domenico Ghirlandaio. “Adoration of the Shepherds” 1482-85
[hay in manger]
Correggio. “Nativity” 1528-30
[Christ on a bed of hay]
Pieter Pourbus. “Adoration of the Shepherds” 1574
[straw/hay at capital of column, straw/hay bundle]
Bartolome Esteban Murillo. “Adoration of Shepherds” 1665
[hay in manger]

The Last Straw

Another reasonable inference about hay-like iconography: the so-called “haystacks” on which Durer’s prodigal son is kneeling and Bodmeer’s Job is sitting are almost certainly heaps of manure, laced with straw bedding, given their locations in typical barnyards, and the artists’ probable intention to humiliate their subjects with as abjectly as possible!

Gabriel Bodmeer.  Suffering of Job. 16th cent.

Albrecht Durer. Prodigal Son. 1496

View Database Records for this Essay

Posted by Alan Ritch at November 5, 2003 01:55 PM