Egg tempera on panel
10 1/4 x 30 1/2 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase, Friends of the Wichita Art Museum
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
Strong nationalist sentiments of the tragic depression years often equated the actively productive life on the rural farms with the virtues of self-sufficiency that had characterized the pioneering spirit of America’s past. For it was on the farm more than in the city where men might act in concert and at the same time reassure themselves of their own individuality and usefulness in accomplishing purposeful work. The depression years also saw the Federal Government promoting the arts through several supportive New Deal programs, one of which was the so-called Section of Fine Arts under the Treasury Department which commissioned competent artists to produce works of art for newly built Federal buildings.
This small painting, titled Wheat Threshing by Ethel Magafan, is a 1937 color design study which was used as the model for a large mural that she executed for the Auburn, Nebraska Post Office building under a Treasury Department commission. The purpose of the work was to dramatize the life of the farmer in America’s wheat belt. Subject matter is communicated clearly and forcefully and is presented as three distinct episodes: pitching the gathered wheat shocks onto a horse team wagon, feeding the wheat onto the threshing machine hopper, and collecting the wheat grain in large bulky sacks stacked against a mounting heap of ejected chaff.
For us today, the theme is interesting, for the threshing process as depicted is no longer in use. Even more interesting is the style and compositional dynamics adopted here, especially when we remember that the artist had to take into consideration the emplacement of the final work for which this little painting was intended to serve merely as a model. For the small version was ultimately translated on a vastly more massive scale to the walls of a post office whereas a mural the composition would be viewed from well below the high level at which it was finally painted.
Here the visual field is shallow and compressed, forcing the forms to adhere closely to the surface plane and thus reinforce the reality of the flat wall on which the mural would appear. Actually, the only hint of deep space is found in the relatively narrow segment near the right end of the composition where a distant wheat field is glimpsed between the heap of chaff and the thresher ejector funnel. As rendered, the theme is accurate and forceful, yet there is no intention of precise photographic likeness. Instead, the forms are simplified and boldly modeled so as to be readily recognized from the viewer’s distance. Excessive detail that might sacrifice impact has been avoided and the subject is, therefore, communicated through only the principal thematic essentials. Action is concentrated, for the artist has selected three episodes by which to express the theme and as a result the long horizontal format can be read as a continuous narrative, beginning at the left, moving through the center and ending at the extreme right. However, the large mural might also be viewed from a considerable distance, in which case the entire composition can be grasped at one glance. This possibility is effectively accommodated by the classical arrangement of the design which is framed by balancing groups of three figures with corresponding poses at each end, one figure facing the spectator, one in profile, and one facing diagonally into the scene and directing our attention on the central action of the thresher. At the same time, the dominant use of a warm yellow disperses a unifying light throughout the composition and appropriately defines the coloration of the farm setting and echoes the bright summer sunshine.
Ethel Magafan was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1916. She studied at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center under Frank Mechau and Boardman Robinson. She was a member of the National Academy of Design and has executed major murals in various locations throughout the country. She maintained her residence and studio in Woodstock, New York.