Gustave Courbet - The Wheat Sifters

by Alexandra Tuschka


In an undefined interior space without corners, edges or vanishing points, we see three people. The randomness of the image details and moment lets us as viewers dive right into the action. The protagonist in the center has been a bit unfriendly and turned her back to us. She is probably busy. With powerful back and forth movements she sifts the grain. We see that she has been at it for a while, because all kinds of chaff has collected on the cloth on the floor. Another woman has been leaning exhausted against the sacks of grain on the left. Presumably they have taken turns. Now her task is to read the finer chaff from the wheat. Has she fallen asleep in the process, like the kitten in the background? It rests next to a bowl from which the ladies have taken their lunch soup. The large pot in the center back refers to it. We see here no upright ladies, no graceful beauties as on the canvases of Courbet's contemporaries. The woman in the center has assumed a rather uncomfortable-looking posture, on her knees she is sifting the grain, her shoes are slipped, her head bent forward in an unhealthy way, her arms stretched out with difficulty. The right arm seems almost manneristically overlong. A boy in the right part of the picture looks curiously into the Tarare, a preparation machine, which removes impurities at the grains. What he gets to see remains hidden from us, maybe there is something stuck in it. Although in close proximity to each other, the work requires such concentration that there is no communication between the three. It seems that no one wants to know anything about us either, we are not even noticed.

Courbet, who came from a wealthy family but nevertheless from a rural area, moved to Paris as a young man. There he encountered a different world with strong contrasts, as well as rather rigid conventions at the Paris Academy. In his works, Courbet shows great sympathy for the so-called "proletarians" who flooded the market in times of industrialization, but had nothing to offer but their mere labor.


He is considered the main representative of realism, a current of painters who opposed any transfiguration but also the traditions and strict rules of the academies. Accordingly, the pictures should not be "beautiful" but above all "true". While other currents paid attention to morally valuable motifs, for the realists also workers, peasants, the unattractive, even the ugly became "worthy of a picture". In this case, he chose as models two of his sisters, Zoé, centered in red, and Juliette, left in the picture. In the boy could be portrayed his illegitimate son Désiré.


Courbet described the painting as one of a series with which he wanted to depict the life of the rural population and bring it closer to the city people. He himself called it "un tableau de moeurs de campagne" - "a picture of rural manners". However, in doing so, he repeatedly exposed himself to criticism; the pictorial themes seemed too unaesthetic and incidental. Nevertheless, the work, completed in 1854, was exhibited at the Salon and found a buyer in the Musée des Beaux-Artes in Nantes during Courbet's lifetime.


Gustave Courbet - The Wheat Sifters

Oil on canvas, 1854, 131 x 167 cm, Musée des Beaux-Artes, Nantes