While Santa Barbara excitedly waits for the Tsukioka Kogyo exhibit of Japanese prints (showing Feb 12-May 15 2011) there is still many works in Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s permanent collection to be introduced to or revisit.

Recently, I spent some time with Jules Bastien-Lepage’s (1848-1884) “Les Bles Murs, or The Ripened Wheat.”
An image of this work can be seen here:

I’m struck that past the seemingly still and staid subjects of the work there is an undertow of change, of transition. This is accomplished through Bastien-Lapage’s placement of the green swath of field running across the frame above the golden ripened wheat.

The rhythms of growth are heard here, the respect and understanding of the patience of agricultural life.
That mature and responsive disposition is sensed also in the human subject here, a bent farmer with their back turned to the viewer with a reaping tool in hand.

The human subject invites us to question and explore their world. Bastien-Lapage’s choice of allowing the wheat gatherer to be turned from us on their knees with head bowed opens a door of repeated viewings to this art piece. Is the person repairing the tool? Are they injured? Why are they alone in their task and how do they experience this act of gathering in the wheat? Are they praying?

The person at their task with back turned toward artist can be approached from two directions: what it says of the subject, and what it says of Bastien-Lapage.

From the immortalized person depicted in the art, it speaks from them “I am not performing. I am fully engaged at the task at hand.”
Of Bastien-Lapage it speaks to the depicted, “I will respect you in your process.”

Of course, the discussion of ‘what it means to depict a subject with their back-turned’ can go down many interesting paths of
“when are we ever ‘not performing?'”
“just as in science, an observer always changes the observed”
“can we reach reality through art?…can we reach reality period?”

I found myself evolving with the painting. I wondered if the farmer was praying, if in their mind they were thinking of the scriptures portraying Christ as one who would reap humanity and separate the ‘wheat from the tares.’

Is the farmer’s point of rest at the golden wheat with the still green crop in the background a moment of repose to consider the enacting of a loaded Christian trope? The act of cutting wheat is an apt metaphor for difficult judgments or decisions as ‘decision’ is derived from the Latin “caedere” meaning ‘to cut.’

The point of decision has come for one rural laborer perhaps it is a profound moment of spiritual meaning and humility. Whatever the cause of the knelt posture, it is a depiction that tugs on this viewer’s heart to consider again their labor, decisions, and way of being.

Bastien-Lapage’s The Ripened Wheat and many other powerful works of art can be found at Santa Barbara’s Museum of Art. Find out more here: