The hoe in art and history

three men two hoes tang dynasty

Three clay figurines from the Tang Dynasty. 600 – 900 CE.


The Cistercian order was an offshoot of the wealthy Benedictines whose new abbey at Cluny was magnificent.  The Benedictines had, over 200 years,  become grand and formalised – with an elaborate bureaucracy and a complex liturgy.
The Cistercian order expected monks to do farmwork – and not use tenants or servants.  The monk on the right wishes he’d stayed with the Benedictines


A busy mediaeval scene : land clearing.


John Everett Millais  [1829 – 1896] painted many every-day rural scenes. His ‘Man with a Hoe’  inspired Edwin Markham’s recent poem :

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?

Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And markt their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this–
More tongued with censure of the world’s blind greed–
More filled with signs and portents for the soul–
More packt with danger to the universe.

What gulfs between him and the seraphim!
Slave of the wheel of labor, what to him
Are Plato and the swing of Pleiades?
What the long reaches of the peaks of song,
The rife of dawn, the reddening of the rose?
Through this dread shape the suffering ages look;
Time’s tragedy is in that aching stoop;
Through this dread shape humanity betrayed,
Plundered, profaned and disinherited,
Cries protest to the Powers that made the world,
A protest that is also prophecy.

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
Is this the handiwork you give to God,
This monstrous thing distorted and soul-quencht?
How will you ever straighten up this shape;
Touch it again with immortality;
Give back the upward looking and the light;
Rebuild in it the music and the dream;
Make right the immemorial infamies,
Perfidlous wrongs, Immedicable woes?

O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
How will it be with kingdoms and with kings–
With those who shaped him to the thing he is–
When this dumb Terror shall rise to judge the world,
After the silence of the centuries?


Millais’  The Potato Sowers.

Below is a less gloomy vision – it could be here in Le Languedoc. Paysan avec houe. Georges Pierre Seurat [1859 – 1891]  Pointillisme comes to the rescue of a man with a short hoe and a bad back. 


Next is Three Women Hoeing by Edinburgh landscape painter William McTaggart. Tiring work for one – while the left-handed woman and the right-handed one keep at it. Hoe-shafts can’t get much lighter than these thin wands.

And could some botanist clear this up – is that the rare dwarf artichoke-lettuce they’re tending?



Land Girls Hoeing. 1919. Manly McDonald. The trousers have almost the same amount of material as the skirts, but here is effort and wind and intent.   Not so many years apart, but a world away.


Magdalena Maria [Maggie] Laubser, Hoeing, 1924  South Africa.


There are so many images of the poor and the enslaved working with a hoe. This is ‘Hoeing Cotton’ by Thomas Hart Benson [1889 – 1975]

And below is ‘Hoeing corn’ –  a rare subject for Clementine Hunter [1886/1887 – 1988]. She was an African-American self-taught folk artist born at Hidden Hill plantation, near Cloutierville, Louisiana.



Harry Upworth Allen. Preparing the Ground. Late 1920’s. Cool colour, crowded field. You have to search for the hoe – but once again, a female figure bent double.

Whereas this woman below has finished her heroic day’s work –


La femme à la houe. Georges Marius Géo-Fourrier [1898 – 1966]. Un artiste breton oublié. An imagined, epic Brittany.


For Baby. Artist unknown. 20th. c. .


A bad hair/bad teeth/bad beard day. And yet he ends up on the cover of an LP.


My sister worked on a kibbutz one summer in the 60’s – it was cool but not that unusual for a middle-class English girl. Now I see that it was all salsify and sex – and we know which way Theodore’s tastes lay.


Mr. McGregor gets a long-handled hoe from Beatrix Potter – and still won’t straighten up. But from now on it’s all a comfortable stroll  – downhill  to Ad-land.



And lastly, when the use of the hoe has passed almost out of our ken,  a re-cycling of imagery can take place.


Please send any art showing the hoe, for inclusion here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s