Eastman Johnson and his wife were riding through Nantucket when they happened upon a scene much like this one, seeing “the yellow corn and husks, the bright chickens running about [and] the old sea captains with their silk hats of better days.” Their excursion inspired this romanticized view of rural life, celebrating hard work, community spirit, and the harvest during a husking bee. Towards the right you can see a young woman holding up a red ear of corn in her right arm. According to folk tradition, this allowed her to kiss the person of her choice.
But what this painting doesn't show is that scenes like this were becoming more and more rare. Industrialization was revolutionizing American agriculture and small farmers were increasingly being forced to abandon their land and seek work in cities. However, we’ll cut Johnson some slack because the timing of this painting does allow for a bit of nostalgia. Johnson made it in 1876, the year that marked the United States’ centennial, a time when people were celebrating democracy and the American spirit.
Image Credit: Eastman Johnson. Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, 1876. Gift of Honoré and Potter Palmer.