H.A. Brendekilde was a forerunner of the social realist style, embraced by Diego Rivera. His early work often depicted the daily lives of the rural working class. One of his most famous paintings, “Worn Out” (1889) shows an elderly man lying fallen on his back in the plowed field. I included this piece in a post on March 30, 2018, but I wanted to look more closely at it today.
Brendekilde’s genius shows in the way he depicts the central subject. The rocky, barren field is immense, nearly blending with the sky. Dirt and rocks dominate this painting–Dirt on their clothes, small rocks embedded in the soil, larger rocks gathered into piles to be carted from the field–this man’s life was the soil, hard and rocky though it was. Yet he clung to it, working to clear the rocks until he could go no further.
I love the detail in this painting. It’s easy to see how their day began: the man and woman spent the morning picking rocks from a field and making small piles of them, preparatory to plowing the field. Then, something happened. A heart attack? A stroke? One of the man’s clogs has fallen off his foot, lost when he stumbled and fell. The stones he was picking up and carrying in his apron have tumbled to the ground beside him.
Farming is working in the dirt, and dirt clings to his clothes. The woman wears a dress that has been patched many times, the loose, dry soil on her garments show she too has been picking rocks all morning. Is she his daughter? Or perhaps his wife? Even if only a friend, she is terribly concerned for him.
They are nearing the end of their winter stores and the first new vegetables have yet to be planted. Has he worked himself to death? Will he recover?
This old man’s entire world is this rocky barren field. As I said in my earlier piece, a story is told in this stark painting.
Credits and Attributions:
Worn Out by H. A. Brendekilde [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons