Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints
August 22 - November 9, 2003
Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints examines images memorializing the family farm from the nineteenth century to the present. Lithographs, etchings and engravings in this exhibition tell the story of a changing way of life and the indelible mark that farms have left upon the landscape. Works drawn from the Crocker's permanent collection augment the exhibition to provide a look at the distinct California farm experience.
Printmaking transmitted affordable images to a broad American audience in the nineteenth century. The audience for rural scenes was well established by mid-century, when the publishing firm of Currier & Ives distributed prints from their vast inventory detailing everything from American ships and trains to scenes of hunting and farming. The pervasive stereotype of the ideal agrarian existence rested upon the notion that harmony between humankind and nature resided on the farm. The values of honest living and hard labor went hand-in-hand with this belief. Francis Flora Palmer's (1812-1876) print made for Nathaniel Currier, for example, illustrates the success achieved by a prudently managed farm.
During the 1930s and 1940s, an increasing number of artists focused on rural subjects in their efforts to record the "American Scene." Contemporary critics asked artists to look not to Europe, but to American soil for an art that would be true to the American experience. Included in the exhibition are farm scenes by those artists most associated with Regionalist painting in American art: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steurat Curry, and Grant Wood. In images of threshing, harvesting, or of the hardships of life on the plains, all three artists captured a lifestyle that has since faded from the collective American memory.
The desire to restore such a collective memory is at the heart of Remembering the Family Farm. For many of the more recent artists represented in the exhibition, printmaking was a means to record those scenes they felt were vanishing as the traditional family farm came increasingly under attack by forces of economic and technological change. In particular, Herschel Logan (1902-1987) made compositions from his memories of harvesting wheat as a boy. Images of grain shocks, silos and barns contain a great deal of information about America's agrarian past. Today, few stop to ponder why silos are round, why barns have gables, or otherwise wonder why those features, once so present in the landscape, have disappeared or become dilapidated.
Farm life in California has a history apart from that of farming in the East and Midwest. From the era of Mexican governance came giant land grants in the thousands of acres that precluded the formation of homesteads. Additionally, land given to the railroads was used to encourage settlement into towns. Large farming and ranching operations dominated the state's agricultural history, with all the ills and rewards attached. However, this did not extinguish the presence of family farms, especially in the Central Valley. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, California's family farmers have had to become more entrepreneurial and specialized than their counterparts elsewhere. Today some 60,000 family farms grow grapes, walnuts and a host of other products against the pressures of an international economy. The images of the farm in California represent the diversity of the industry and the experience of farms, large and small.
Organized according to agricultural activities and buildings, the exhibition includes scenes of plowing, haying, cultivating and other aspects of farming. Even when these prints are frankly nostalgic or sentimental, they offer fresh and rewarding insight into the rich visual history of American agriculture.