Farming scenes have always formed an important part of our artistic heritage, providing a fascinating record of agriculture in a bygone era. But these works also paint an inspiring picture of how we should be producing food in the future.
Since the dawn of time, people have painted, drawn, etched, carved and sculpted animals. From Palaeolithic cave paintings and the ritual art of ancient Egypt to mythical works of the Middle Ages and the pastoral scenes of the 17th and 18th centuries, the bond between mankind, animals and the landscape has long captivated artists.
A prolific painter
Take John Constable, for example. This celebrated English painter captured the beauty of our rolling landscapes in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
Constable’s great work of 1816, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, depicts a glorious lakeside estate studded with grazing cows drenched in the midday sun.
It’s an idyllic scene showing the English landscape at its thriving best, with man, land and animals working together harmoniously – a far cry from the American-style feedlots that are threatening to arrive on our shores.
Inspiring agricultural scenes in art are countless, so we’ve chosen a handful more that caught our eyes.
Thomas Gainsborough’s Cottage Door with Girl and Pigs of 1786 illustrates pigs eating kitchen scraps – a fantastic lesson in using resources more effectively in a world that often struggles with the challenge of managing its waste.
Dutch artist Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch’s Landscape with a Peasant Girl Feeding Chickens of 1870 shows a small flock of free-range birds set against a woody backdrop.
And the sturdy, grazing cattle in the works of the American "cow painter" William Henry Howe are surely some of the greatest adverts for grass-fed cattle.
Back to the farming future
It would be wrong to romanticise the rural life of the past, which often involved relentless, back-breaking work. But these paintings can certainly impart a wealth of agricultural wisdom, which is just as relevant today. They depict more sensible ways of farming that nurture the land, respect people and animals, and produce high-quality food.
Although the free-range systems illustrated by these artists do still exist in certain forms – thanks to a band of forward-thinking farmers – they are increasingly a minority.
How are today’s artists responding?
Farm animals are now often kept out of sight, off the land, confined inside huge facilities with little or no fresh air or natural light. England’s "green and pleasant land", described by poet William Blake in the early 19th century, is not as green or as pleasant as it once was. In fact, with the rise of industrial agriculture, these four words are becoming less and less relevant by the day.
So how would an artist depicting our current intensive-livestock systems get on? Look to the works of British artist Mishka Henne (as reported in Wired magazine) for your answer. His endlessly grey images depict vast feedlots in the US from above, and are so colourless that the artist has to enhance the tone of the waste lagoons to break the monotony of the scenes. With their almost apocalyptic feel, these works couldn’t be less like the magnificent, undulating fields of the pre-industrial agricultural era.
Reimagining a green and pleasant land
There is much that we can learn from the agricultural scenes above. They all show livestock farming that puts animals on the land rather than in factories, and works in harmony with the natural world, producing more nutritious food in the process. If we can turn the tide, we may well encounter a new generation of artists reimagining our green and pleasant land. Not exactly the same, of course, but still colourful, vibrant and full of life.