It is harvest time on a large farm. The broad fields have been shorn of their golden grain, and men and women are still busy gathering it in. The binders have tied the wheat in sheaves with withes, the sheaves are piled upon a wagon and carried to a place near the farm buildings, where they are stacked in great mounds resembling enormous soup tureens. The overseer rides to and fro on his horse giving orders to the laborers.

Now come the gleaners into the field to claim the time-honored privilege of gathering up the scattered ears still lying on the ground. The custom dates back to very early times.[1] The ancient Hebrews had a strict religious law in regard to it: "When ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger."[2] Another law says that the gleanings are "for the fatherless and for the widow; that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands."[3]

This generous practice is still observed in France. The owner of a grain field would be afraid of bad luck to the harvest if he should refuse to let the gleaners in after the reapers. Gleaning is, however, allowed only in broad daylight, that no dishonest persons may carry away entire sheaves.

It is near noon of a summer day, and the sun is high in the heavens, casting only small shadows about the feet. The gleaners are three women of the poorer peasant class. They are tidily dressed in their coarse working clothes, and wear kerchiefs tied over their heads, with the edge projecting a little over the forehead to shade the eyes. The dresses are cut rather low in the neck, for theirs is warm work.

They make their way through the coarse stubble, as sharp as needles, gathering here and there a stray ear of the precious wheat. Already they have collected enough to make several little bundles, tied neatly, and piled together on the ground at one side.

From a carbon print by Braun, Clément & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE GLEANERS

As we look at them closely we see that they represent the three ages of womanhood: there is a maiden, a matron, and an old woman. The nearest figure, standing at the right, is the eldest of the three. She cannot bear the strain of stooping long at a time, and bends stiffly and painfully to her task. Next her is a solidly built woman, with square figure and a broad back capable of bearing heavy burdens. Those strong large hands have done hard work. The third figure is that of a young woman with a lithe, girlish form. With a girl's thought for appearance she has pinned her kerchief so that the ends at the back form a little cape to shield her neck from the burning sun. Unlike her companions, she wears no apron. While the others use their aprons doubled up to form sacks for their gleanings, she holds her grain in her hand.

If you will try in turn each one of the positions taken by the several figures, you will see how differently the three work. The two who put the grain in the apron, or pass it into the hand which rests on the knee, must every time lift themselves up with an awkward backward motion. The younger gleaner has found a short and direct route from one hand to the other, by resting the left hand, palm up, upon the back, where the right can reach it by a simple upward motion of the arm which requires no exertion of the body. Her method saves the strength and is more graceful.

Moving forward in the stooping posture, with eyes fixed upon the ground, the figures of the gleaners have been compared to great grasshoppers, making their odd, irregular, hopping progress across the field. Even as we look they seem to move toward us.

The picture is a fine study in lines. The middle figure is constructed in a square outline, and this square effect is emphasized in various ways,—by the right angle formed between the line across the bust and the right arm, by the square corner between chin and neck, and by the square shape of the kerchief at the back of the head. We thus get an idea of the solid, prosaic character of the woman herself.

The younger woman is a creature of beautiful curves. The lines of her back and bust flow together in an oval figure which the position of the left arm completes. The outstretched right arm continues the fine line across the back. The lovely curve of the throat, the shapeliness of the hand, even the pretty adjustment of the kerchief, lend added touches to the charm of the youthful figure.

The lines of the standing figure curve towards the other two, and carry the composition to sufficient height. The lines enclosing the entire group form a mound-like figure not unlike a wheat stack in shape. A wheat stack faintly seen across the distance in the centre of the field marks the apex of the mound, the sides being formed by the outer lines of the two outer figures.

When we compare the picture with the others we have seen in the same general style of composition, showing a level plain with figures in front, we note how much more detail the background of the Gleaners contains. This is because the figures do not come above the horizon line, as do those in the Angelus and Shepherdess. Hence the eye must be led upward by minor objects, to take in the entire panorama spread before us.


See the Book of Ruth.


Leviticus, chapter xxiii., verse 22.


Deuteronomy, chapter xxiv., verse 19.