Illustrated companion

This is one of a pair of pictures in which the landscape background is carefully composed on 'classical' principles so that the two will hang perfectly together, the clump of trees on the right of 'Reapers' balancing the clump on the left of its pair, 'Haymakers' [Tate Gallery T02256], and with a recession to a distant horizon in the centre. But within each painting the arrangement of figures is completely self-contained and it is these people who are Stubbs's real subjects here. Made at a time when peasants or farm workers were introduced into painting mainly as decorative elements Stubbs's 'Reapers' and 'Haymakers' have always been noted for the sympathy and objectivity with which he has depicted these workers as individuals Equally notable is the way he has devoted his powers of observation to a realistic portrayal of their skills at cutting corn, stacking sheaves or raking or loading hay, making these activities an important part of the subject of the picture. By including the landowner, or possibly his agent or manager, on his horse, idly looking on, Stubbs also reminds us, in a completely unforced way, of the social inequalities inherent in this apparently idyllic scene. The composition of 'Reapers' is formed of two roughly pyramidal groups, the man and woman flanking the stack of sheaves on the left, and the horseman, with the bending reaper below the horse's head, on the right. These groups are linked by the strong pattern of the three bending men dramatically broken by the standing figure of the young woman in the centre. She is the real focus of the composition and with the dignity and presence Stubbs has given her, might be the true subject of the picture.

There is evidence that 'Reapers' and 'Haymakers' were based on careful drawings from life: in the sale of Stubbs's studio after his death were 'Six Studies of the Reaper and two finished drawings of ditto', 'A capital Drawing, the original design for the Corn Field with Reapers' and 'Ditto, ditto, the original design for the Painting of the Hay Field and Men loading a Hay Cart'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.42