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Peasant life in Normandy, by Gertrude Käsebier in 1894 – guest photo blogger!

Rabbit and poultry vendors

Today our midweek photo post comes from the small farming community of Cressy in Seine Maritime.  Our guest blogger Gertrude Käsebier visited in 1894, while an art student in Paris. Her unique photographs of Normandy country life reveal a world now long lost, a time just before the introduction of farm machinery.

Gertrude would go on to become one of the most influential American photographers of the early 20th century.

This article first appeared on 1 March 1895, in the Monthly Illustrator:

Peasant life in Normandy

Gertrude Käsebier 

The north western part of France – old France, ancient, primitive, soaked with historical associations, breathing of knightly adventure, abounding in picturesque features both of country and people – has long been a favourite place of pilgrimage for artists.

Few are the men and women who have studied in Paris who have not spent at least one vacation among its quaint quiet villages, in wandering over its meadows, loitering in its fields, and stealing delightful “notes” from its cottages and cottagers.

Such was the mission of a band of American art-students, who lately invaded the pleasant environs of Cressy.

Bending orchards and golden harvest fields

At first the groves and fields and rural markets, and the shady banks of the wide winding river, attracted their attention more; and this outer aspect of the old Norman neighbourhood seems to come first in the history of that memorable vacation.

There was everything to woo us, as we wandered about the fields, where paths, trodden for unnumbered centuries, and grown long ago to be thoroughfares for the people that no landlord can shut up, invited us to tramp away over the hills and through bending orchards and golden harvest fields.

Binding the grain
Binding the grain

Scenes loved by the artist Corot

It was in these same paths that Corot and others of his kind loved to tread. Under those willows the great master painted his last picture. The place is hallowed by association; the soil is saturated with human toil. It gave to us something the New World could not. Hill and valley in simple masses against the fading glow of evening, made us more conscious of the power of those masters who interpreted so well and taught us anew of the Master over all.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Les deux soeurs dans la prairie
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Les deux soeurs dans la prairie, 1860/5

Sweet twilight

The sweetest time for these walks, and the most impressive, was at twilight. The latitude is really far north, and it is one of the lovely advantages of Normandy’s northerly situation, that it enjoys a long slow twilight; and at that hour was it that most of all we loved to stroll away from the village along the quiet paths beside the river.

If inspiration were wanted, an understanding of the sentiment of the place and the life, now was the time to receive it. The hour surely affected every heart, even though no immediately tangible results may have appeared. Who could contemplate the rosy light fading away from the meadows across the little stream whose motionless pools reflected the sunset sky, without an emotion which would leave an indelible impress upon the artist mind?

Or, standing aside so as not to alarm them, watch the homeward wending sheep as, perfectly posed, they came nibbling their way slowly up the road, here half-lost in the deepening shadows, there pale white with the last of the departing daylight, and you must have a very obdurate heart if you fail to feel the beauty and poetry of the moment. Such evening strolls and meditations as these knitted together friendships never to be severed, and taught to the young women studying there more than they learned from their master of the truest things of their art.

return of the sheep
Return of the sheep

Peasants we never quite understand

But all the strolling was not in the blessed twilight. Long walks, wide-awake and intent upon work, occupied many a day filled with pictures not to be forgotten. From someone or other of those rounded hilltops we looked down upon the villages of peasants, where no sign of life was visible, those same peasants of whom we are so fond and whom we never quite understand.

We dared once to pity their women, because they were labourers in the field. Today, knowing them better, the simplicity, the honesty, the naturalness of their lives makes us question, and we begin to ask whether they cannot teach us many a lesson in contentment, healthful dress, industry, patience, and unaffected manners.

A silhouette
A silhouette

Sobriety, steadiness, and righteousness

It is true that French women labour like men in the fields, in spring, in hot summer, and again in the still warm autumn; but it must be membered that their muscles are never hampered by the pressure of whalebone and steel; their lungs are not enfeebled by breathing the vitiated air of close rooms; their strength has not been spent upon the treadle of a sewing-machine; nor do they work with that feverish consuming energy that marks our western race. Their climate is not enervating, and their lives know no excesses. They are not possessed of a desire to appear what they are not, nor to excel their neighbours. Their pride is to do as their fathers did, and do it well.

One sees a few exceptions, it is true, in the village itself, but this is the rule among the country people, and will remain so for a long time to come; and these country people are the strength and salvation of France, a great make-weight for sobriety, steadiness, and righteousness against the insurrectionary fever of Paris.

A group of peasants
A group of peasants

Artists warmly welcomed

The farmer folk made us welcome everywhere, gave us the freedom their fields, flower gardens and orchards, let us set up our easels and cameras where we pleased, and showed the kindliest disposition to meet our wishes.

There was a sympathy among them that seemed to us a real, instinctive art appreciation, entirely removed from the mere contemptuous curiosity which the sketcher so often encounters and is chilled by elsewhere.

Posing the calf
Posing the calf

Progress and old skills soon lost

For an instance, we one day asked a mower if we might photograph him at his work. “Oh, yes,” he answered, but with a certain pathos in his voice which his next remark explained. He would gladly have us do so, he said, for this was the last season in which they were to use the scythe in mowing by hand. Next year there was to be a machine.

His sturdy wife looked on, leaning upon her rake, her face gently saddened by the thought of how the sweet old traditions of her girlhood were passing away, and new and untried things of “progress” were taking their place.

When we finally seized a happy position, and fixed it on our plate, the scene made such as Millet must have seen hundreds of times before he painted his immortal picture.

Old mower and his wife
Old mower and his wife

An evening meal

Once we chanced in at the home of a wealthy peasant at the time of the evening meal. Our welcome was cordial, and they proceeded unembarrassed with their simple supper.

The woman, just in from the field clad in a short skirt, a white blouse, a blue apron, with a bright silk kerchief bound about her hair, kindled a few dry sticks in the great, open fireplace, and put on an egg or two to boil. Monsieur drew from his pocket a knife which evidently did duty for many purposes, having a strong blade curved at the end like a pruning-knife. From a cupboard he took a bottle of claret of his own vintage. He took a loaf, or yard, as you please, of bread, helped himself to the eggs, and sat down at a table of polished wood with only a dish of salt upon it.

The son, the only heir to all their acres, got an extra tidbit in the way of some cold meat and two cloves of garlic, which he too prepared with his own pocketknife. They by no means insisted upon our sharing this fare however, nor seemed offended if we showed a disposition for something else.

They would give us wine or sell us milk if we preferred it. They seemed delighted to rob their gardens of flowers and fruits for us and we could have all the strawberries we chose to pick from June to November.  Oh! The roses, the French roses!

Sitting in the sunshine
Sitting in the sunshine

A forkful of clover

On our way home we passed another old peasant mother, walking homeward with a forkful of clover balanced across her substantial shoulder. Her clean tight cap framed so kindly a smile that we had no hesitation in asking for her portrait and here it is, blue apron, white cap, sabots, clover-vines, and all, just as she stood on that sunny afternoon in her dooryard at Cressy.

Bringing in the clover
Bringing in the clover


Gertrude Kashehier, twilight, Normandy
Gertrude Käsebier, twilight, Normandy

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