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Early Modern European Peasants

This collection demonstrates the broad range of approaches used to depict the early modern peasant between 1450 and 1750, from comedic caricatures of peasant weddings to more sobering renderings of poverty-stricken families. Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), a Dutch artist, was one of the first painters to popularize images of the rambunctious feasts and religious celebrations of peasant communities. More often, however, artistic depictions of peasants served as social commentary on the plight of families faced with constant poverty. Some prints and drawings were designed to elicit sympathy (see, for example, Callot's images of peasants begging for alms in torn rags), while other works stressed the unpredictability and potential violence of peasant life. Yet poverty was not always a negative characteristic within the symbolic world of early modern Europe. The Christian tradition taught that Christ loved the poor and associated asceticism with religious virtue. Images of saints from this period often show individuals abandoning their worldly possessions and choosing to live in poverty as a means to obtain communion with God. Likewise, destitute peasants are also often shown as deeply religious figures.

Peasants led an especially precarious existence during the early modern period. The majority were tenant farmers who rented out small plots of land on unfavorable terms from noble landowners. Their low social status meant that they frequently encountered prejudice in legal disputes and were subject to high taxation by the institutional Catholic church and by royal authorities. In times of famine and plague, peasants were invariably the hardest hit and would often be forced to pile into the nearest city in desperate search of sustenance. Despite these hardships, however, peasant culture was vibrant and flourishing throughout early modern Europe. The life of the working poor life was especially marked by the rhythms and celebrations of the agricultural cycle and annual religious festivals like saints' holidays.

The early modern era saw the decline of personal charity and the rise of public charitable institutions, including hospitals, poor houses, and public bread-distribution centers. These institutions largely removed the visible presence of poverty within the early modern city and tucked it away from the public conscience. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that later 17th- and 18th-century depictions of peasants idealized the bucolic nature of life in the countryside, which appeared so far removed from the hustle and bustle of growing early modern cities. The French queen Marie-Antoinette, one of the wealthiest women of her time, was so taken with the picturesque imagery of peasant life that she constructed her own rustic peasant village retreat, the Hameau de la Reine, on the stately grounds of Versailles.  The reality of poverty was, of course, much darker, as the long string of grain and tax riots held during her reign shows.

A man wearing a tunic, cape and boots stands in a minimal landscape. His walking stick seems to be falling away from him at the right as the man points upwards toward the sun's rays, as well as extends his right hand towards fire at the lower left.
René Boyvin
engraving on laid paper
10 3/8 x 6 1/2 in. (26.3 x 16.4 cm);10 3/8 x 6 1/2 in. (26.3 x 16.4 cm);15 1/2 x 10 13/16 in. (39.37 x 27.31 cm)
Museum Purchase
This engraving is horizontally oriented. The length of a cow (with its head to the left and its tail to the right) is the focal point, taking up about a third of the image. At the cow’s head on the left, a barefooted man with a hat leans on a pole and rests his arm on a tree trunk. Behind the man is another cow with horns and he is standing in front of a building. The ground is rocky and a fence made of thin tree trunks runs along the background. At the cow’s tail on the right, is a peasant woman with bare feet. Her head is covered with a cloth and she labors to carry a heavy wooden milk bucket. Several trees and another cow are behind her. A small plaque on the ground in the foreground contains an inscription.
Lucas Van Leyden
The Milkmaid
engraving on laid paper
4 ½ in x 6 ⅛ in (11.43 cm x 15.56 cm);19 3/10 in x 14 3/10 in (49.05 cm x 36.35 cm)
Museum Purchase
Hans Lautensack
Landscape with Peasants in Vineyard and Castle
etching on paper
7 11/16 x 11 1/2 in. (19.4 x 29.2 cm);7 11/16 x 11 1/2 in. (19.47 x 29.21 cm);14 5/16 x 19 5/16 in. (36.2 x 49.05 cm)
Museum Purchase
This painting shows a man seated on a bench, facing the viewer. He leans forward slightly and his right hand reaches across his body to point toward a group of coins on the ground. He is dressed in tattered clothing and his feet are bare. The bench where he is seated is inscribed with the letters: P. Q. P. C. /T. T. This is an outdoor scene with open sky in the background and some vegetation on a ledge above him, but there are no details to indicate the exact location. Another man is shown in the background at the right, walking hunched over and using a staff. There is a strong contrast between dark and light in this painting. The figure of the walking man and the dark shapes of buildings are outlined against the light backdrop of the sky. A strong warm light, from the left side of the painting, highlights the knees, hand and upper body of the seated man.
Domenico Fetti
The Cynic Philosopher Crates
oil on canvas
73 ¼ in x 56 ¾ in x 2 ¾ in (186.06 cm x 144.14 cm x 6.99 cm);73 ¼ in x 56 ¾ in x 2 ¾ in (186.06 cm x 144.14 cm x 6.99 cm);67 in x 50 in (170.18 cm x 127 cm)
Museum Purchase
St. Jerome in Penitence
engraving on paper
8 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. (22.1 x 17.1 cm);19 5/16 x 14 5/16 in. (48.9 x 36.2 cm)
Museum Purchase
Left and right sides of print are seperated by an herm. The left side of the print is a darkened pseudo-interior, with light illimunating two female figures and dead lambs. The right side of the print is set in front of a barn(?) and features figures reacting to the body of a deceased woman in the foreground. BL 2/28/18
Marcantonio Raimondi
The Plague
engraving on paper
7 4/5 in x 9 15/16 in (19.84 cm x 25.24 cm);14 ⅜ in x 19 3/10 in (36.51 cm x 49.05 cm)
Museum Purchase
Adriaen Jansz van Ostade
Le Père de Famille Donnant la Bouillie à son Enfant (A Peasant Family at Home)
etching and engraving on paper
4 4/5 in x 3 3/10 in (12.22 cm x 8.41 cm);19 3/10 in x 14 ¼ in (49.05 cm x 36.2 cm)
Gift of Carl Fredric Clarke
Adriaen Jansz van Ostade
Les Deux Commères (The Two Gossips)
etching and engraving on paper
4 in x 3 7/16 in (10.16 cm x 8.73 cm);19 3/10 in x 14 3/10 in (49.05 cm x 36.35 cm)
Gift of Carl Fredric Clarke
Abraham Bosse
Danse des Villageois, Pl. 2 from a series of 3, "Le Mariage a la campagne"
engraving on paper
10 ⅝ in x 13 7/16 in (26.99 cm x 34.13 cm)
Gift of Jean Paul Slusser
Jacques Callot
The Peasants' Revenge, No. 17 from 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre'
etching on paper
8 ½ in x 12 ⅛ in (21.59 cm x 30.8 cm);19 ¼ in x 14 ¼ in (48.89 cm x 36.2 cm)
Anonymous Gift for The Paul Leroy Grigaut Memorial Collection
Two rough figures dominate the composition with a lightly etched landscape behind them. Both figures hold a staff and each is dressed in ragged clothes. In addition, the scallop shell, indicating that they are pilgrims to the shrine of St. James the Greater at Santiago de Compostela, is visible on the brims of their hats, and on the left shoulder of the man standing to the right.
Jacques Callot
'Les Gueux' or 'Les Mendiants'. Les Deux Pèlerins (The Two Pilgrims)
etching on laid paper
5 ¾ in x 3 ½ in (14.61 cm x 8.89 cm);19 in x 14 in (48.26 cm x 35.56 cm)
Museum Purchase
Jacques Callot
Les Gueux, or Les Mendiants. La Mendiante au Rosaire (The Beggarwoman with a Rosary)
etching on paper
5 ⅜ in x 3 7/16 in (13.65 cm x 8.73 cm);19 ¼ in x 14 ¼ in (48.89 cm x 36.2 cm)
Museum Purchase


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Part of 10 Learning Collections

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

American Orientalist art at the turn of the 20th century
<p>America Encounters Asia in Art</p>

60 Collection Object Sources

Empedocles (1990/1.189)
The Plague (1960/2.131)
The Milkmaid (1961/1.160)
The Rat Catcher (2002/2.345)
Untitled (2009/1.510)

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Last Updated

January 22, 2019 3:44 p.m.


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