Winnowing Grain

about 1873–79
Eastman Johnson (American, 1824–1906)


39.37 x 33.34 cm (15 1/2 x 13 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on composition board

On View

David and Stacey Goel Gallery (Gallery 239)





During the summers of 1873 to 1879, Eastman Johnson made frequent visits to his sister’s farm in Kennebunkport, Maine. An old barn on the property provided Johnson with the rustic setting that appears in a number of his most intimate genre paintings, including In the Hayloft (about 1877–78, San Diego Museum of Art) and Barn Swallows (1878, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Winnowing Grain is also one of the Kennebunkport group, but it differs both in subject and mood from those other scenes, which depict happy children enjoying idle summer days. In Winnowing Grain, a farmer works in a laborious and old-fashioned method to sort grain from chaff by hand, a task of winnowing that increasingly was performed by machines.
Like his contemporary, Winslow Homer, Johnson sometimes alluded to the Civil War and its aftermath in his paintings. Although Johnson most often addressed issues of slavery and emancipation, Winnowing Grain may refer to the class of Civil War soldiers newly returned to their farms, as memorialized in Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In the popular consciousness, images of farmed fields and reaped crops simultaneously evoked devastating memories of Civil War battles, many of which occurred on wheat fields, and optimistic visions of a restored and prospering nation. The physical act of separating the wheat from the chaff may further symbolize the separation of those who survived from the battles from those who fell to earth. Despite the backbreaking nature of winnowing, as immortalized by Jean-François Millet’s The Winnower (1847–48, National Gallery, London), Johnson’s old farmer seems unburdened by the chore, even meditative. His eyes are downcast and shadowed by his hat, his posture shows no tension or strain, and the bucket of grain appears virtually weightless in his hands. As in his many well-known images of maple sugaring in Maine [48.435] and cranberry picking on the island of Nantucket, Johnson depicts this agricultural work as rewarding, tranquil, even spiritual. With sunlight illuminating each fleck of grain in the cascading stream, the farmer’s small crop is imbued with an almost hypnotic power, like a profusion of golden treasure.

Johnson achieved this mesmerizing effect by applying scumbled (dry and opaque) yellow paint overtop the loosely painted brown tones of the barn’s door and its shadowy recesses. The setting is only generalized, with one bright highlight delineating the door from the crude outbuildings, and two hastily sketched figures in the upper right, suggesting the barn’s interior. While this painting was never exhibited during Johnson’s lifetime, the technical experiments evident in it are characteristic of his direction in the late 1870s. At this time, Johnson’s interest in juxtaposing dark shadows with resplendent sunshine was coupled with his use of increasingly expressive brushstrokes. He replaced the anecdotal narrative and sentimental genre of his earlier work with a virtuoso display of light effects on moving forms. In Winnowing Grain, Johnson demonstrates these skills with an illusory shower of yellow. The farmer’s sunlit flecks of grain are indiscernible from the painter’s tiny daubs of paint.

Hannah Blunt


Lower right: E.J.


About 1873-1907, the artist; Feb. 26-27, 1907, Eastman Johnson Sale, American Art Galleries, Lot 93. 1945, with Victor Spark, New York; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, bequest of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 3, 1948)

Credit Line

Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865