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Image of He that by the plough would thrive—Himself must either hold or drive

anonymous

He that by the plough would thrive—Himself must either hold or drive

c. 1825-1850
34 3/4 in. x 84 1/8 in. (88.27 cm x 213.68 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Purchased as the gift of Evelyn L. Roberts
Accession Number: 1952.1

Commentary

Since the eighteenth century, Americans have extolled the virtues of agrarian republicanism, perceiving in farm life a useful and independent vocation that provided social status and living conditions distinct from those experienced by European peasants. In the United States, as the art historian Sarah Burns has noted, the farm symbolized "an egalitarian social order based on natural rights rather than inherited and rigidly fixed class hierarchies."1 According to this republican ideology, the American farmer, free from oppression and tyranny, was incorruptible and morally elevated from the materialistic temptations that debased society. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin took nationalistic pride in the labors of the American farmer, heralding him as a self-sufficient yeoman who worked his own land, cultivated its soil, and reaped its resources for himself and his family.2

Measuring seven feet across, this canvas is a didactic panorama celebrating industry and progress through agricultural pursuits. Interpreted as a visual text reinforced by the inscription appearing along its bottom border, the composition presents the process by which the American farmer and his family carved out an existence on the frontier. In the distance, men ready the soil for planting and livestock grazing by stripping the wilderness forest. They are depicted "making land" by felling the trees, grubbing up stumps, and burning off the unused timber. Two men in the middle ground prepare the cleared land for future crops, with one holding the plow and the other driving the team of oxen. In the foreground, beside the homestead at the right, a woman milks a cow, while nearby a young girl feeds what appears to be a lamb. The log construction of the house suggests the pioneer status of this family, since such dwellings were often temporary or transitional, providing shelter until the land was fully cleared and a more permanent residence could be built.3

The legend, He that by the plough would thrive—Himself must either hold or drive, is a supplementary, but important, component of this painting. Although John Ray first published the proverb in England in the 1670s, Benjamin Franklin is credited with having introduced it to America in his Poor Richard's Almanac of 1747.4 For over twenty-five years beginning in 1732, Franklin, under the assumed name Richard Saunders, published this almanac in which he "filled all the little Spaces that occurr'd between the Remarkable Days in the Calendar, with Proverbial Sentences, chiefly such as inculcated Industry and Frugality, as the Means of procuring Wealth and thereby securing Virtue.”5 Such "Proverbial Sentences" served as reminders to the cautious farmer that in his pursuit of prosperity he must remain self-reliant, ultimately depending on himself to till the soil, and to sow the seeds that would ensure his reward with bountiful blessings during the days of harvest. In this scene, no one is idle; all work to reap benefits from the land. For idleness was anathema to successful husbandry. As landscape historian John Stilgoe notes, meadows, pastures, and planting fields were cultivated and cleared continuously, "because they must be, else they are overrun by the wildness gnawing at their edges.”6 Even in this pastoral setting, in which the geese seen swimming in the pond seem tamed by the forces of man while near them a cow slakes its thirst, the artist has carefully revealed to the viewer the tenuous ability of the farmer to battle nature's regenerative forces. Although the trees in the foreground, on the left and right, are stripped nearly bare of their limbs and leaves, a delicate, tendriled vine seems to be creeping up the trunk on the right, serving as an ominous sign that nature, if left unchecked, will reassert its presence and return this domesticated landscape to its primordial state.

Charlotte Emans Moore, Addison Gallery of American Art, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 316

1. Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), p. 101.

2. Earle D. Ross, "Benjamin Franklin as an Eighteenth Century Agricultural Leader," Journal of Political Economy 37 (February 1929), pp. 61-65.

3. John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 160, 170-82; Burns, p. 51. The author thanks Georgia B. Barnhill, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, for her assistance in attempting to locate a print source for this painting; see Barnhill to the author, 16 August 1995, Addison Gallery Archives.

4. Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases
(New York: MacMillan Company, 1948), p. 1816; Wolfgang Mieder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.470. See also John Ray, A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs; Also the Most Celebrated Proverbs of the Scotch, Italian, French, Spanish, and Other Languages (1670; 4th ed., London: W. Otridge et al., 1768), p. 147; Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987), p. 1239.

5. Benjamin Franklin, Writings, p. 1397.

6. Stilgoe, pp. 170-71.

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