Inspired by Chanel’s stunning Les Blés du Chanel collection of jewellery harnessing the beauty of wheat, Selections explores how the life-giving grain has been captured in the work of five great artists
Wheat, with its golden stalks and promise of life, has long been a favourite of artists. Beginning in ancient Greece and Rome, and up until the contemporary era, wheat has consistently appeared, in one form or another, in European and American art. The symbolism of wheat stretches all the way back to classical literature: grains were often included in treatises on farming and natural history, and they appeared extensively in mythology. Ceres, the grain goddess, for example, was always depicted with a sheaf of corn or wheat.
Some of the world’s most revered artists, including the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Thomas Hart Benton, devoted much of their work to wheat, exploring the various artistic facets of the grain on their ambitious canvasses. More recently, artists such as Raoul Dufy, James Siena and Gad Weil created a contemporary take on the grain, o.ering an edgy interpretation of this popular source of food.
Taking mankind’s fascination with wheat one step further, iconic French fashion house Chanel introduced last year a high jewellery collection inspired by wheat and aptly named Les Blés de Chanel.
For Mademoiselle Chanel, wheat was particularly symbolic: as her lucky charm, it represented wealth, luck and creativity. She grew up in the French countryside and was born during the wheat harvest. This affiliation with nature would resound throughout her life: she decorated her Paris apartment with various incarnations of wheat, and Salvador Dalí even painted his famed Ear of Wheat for Coco Chanel in 1947.
Les Blés de Chanel celebrates the great fashion designer’s passion for wheat with a stupendous collection of fine jewels. The 62 exclusive pieces take wheat as a starting point and then transform that natural wonder into artistic jewellery.
Highlights from the collection include L’Epi, a delicate brooch in platinum and yellow gold adorned with colourful gemstones. There’s also a particularly dazzling bracelet featuring five rows of yellow sapphires (recalling wheat) and then enhanced with a three-pronged sprig of brilliantcut white diamonds. Other items include rings, pendants and earrings, all inspired by wheat.
The choice of precious stones is particularly relevant to the collection. Green emeralds, for example, provide a nod to the first ears of corn, while yellow sapphires recall the golden colour of corn when it’s caressed by sunshine.
What is most arresting about Les Blés de Chanel is the seemingly effortless simplicity with which each piece captures the ephemeral beauty of nature. Whether the jewellery is worn around the neck, around the wrist or on the ears, it’s easy to envision the endless fields of wheat that provided inspiration for Chanel’s bejeweled art.
Wheatfield with Crows
Wheatfield with Crows is one of Vincent van Gogh’s most iconic works – art critics and connoisseurs often affirm that it’s Van Gogh’s very best. This masterpiece features a dark, cloudy sky replete with threatening black crows, but the bulk of the canvas – two thirds of it – is filled with golden fields of wheat, stretching abundantly in every direction. Myth has it that the crows populating the piece were a commentary about the artist’s coming death (he died in 1890, the same year he completed this painting), but the reality may have been slightly different. It’s been suggested that the crows and the gathering clouds could have expressed loneliness and sadness, in contrast to the vibrant wheat fields populating the rest of the canvas, which were meant to represent life, vitality and all that is good about nature and the countryside.
The powerful colour contrasts – blue sky versus yellow-orange wheat – serve to give the painting balance, perhaps expressing the ever-changing emotions of daily living. Wheatfield with Crows now hangs at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Wheatfield with Cypresses
Vincent van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Cypresses is a sweeping work that depicts a glorious, golden field of wheat with a soaring cypress in the background, as observed by the artist in the scenic French town of Saint Rémy de Provence. The Dutch post-impressionist painter viewed this painting as one of his best summer landscapes, opposing the cool, almost austere colours of the sky with the bold, brilliant colour of the wheat depicted below. The cypress in back serves as a sort of connection, a natural link between the unreachable, ever elusive sky, and the warm fields of wheat shimmering on this particular parcel of earth. Like his other wheat depictions, Wheatfield with Cypresses is one of Van Gogh’s odes to manual labourers and a way for him to rea.rm his connection to nature, while o.ering comfort to others. Van Gogh painted Wheatfield with Cypresses in the summer of 1889 and the painting now belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Through his sweeping murals and expressive paintings, Thomas Hart Benton spent a lifetime chronicling America’s changing farming traditions. A case in point is Cradling Wheat, completed in 1938 and featuring four people – three men and a young boy – harvesting wheat. Echoing the undulating hills in the background, the four figures are bent over their work, rounded over, suggesting perhaps a complete harmony between man and nature. The title of the painting refers to the man on the left, who is using an old-fashioned cradling scythe for his manual labour. In this instance, because of his tool, the process of harvesting the wheat is called cradling. Much like other Benton works, Cradling Wheat offers a glimpse into mid-century America, focusing on the lives of farmers and other traditional figures from American history, while shedding light on the importance of the wheat harvest throughout the ages.
Raoul Dufy’s The Wheatfield is a colourful tribute to the wheat fields of Normandy in northern France. The painting, completed in 1929, brings together all of Dufy’s skills, as it features vividly golden fields of wheat set against a brilliant blue sky. There are three horses in fantastical colours in the foreground, while blue birds – the symbol of happiness – fly freely around them. Much like fellow artist Thomas Hart Benton, Dufy sought to strike a balance between a rural past – via his golden fields of wheat – and imminent industrialisation. The result is a work laden with nostalgia and bygone beauty, yet at the same time full of futuristic energy. French Fauvist painter Dufy was beloved for his colourful, decorative style and bold contours. He was also an illustrator and a commercial artist, and he painted murals, designed textiles and created ceramics. The Wheatfield is now part of the Tate Modern’s collection in London.
A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon
Marc Chagall’s A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon was invented for the New York City Ballet’s production of Aleko in 1942. The artist was commissioned to create the scenery and costumes for Aleko, and he painted four large backdrops for the show, including A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon, which featured intense colours and symbolic elements. Like other Chagall works, this one is rife with imagery, including an oversized, reddish sun, and a massive field of wheat that resembles wild dancing flames. One of the great visionaries of the 20th century, Chagall was a prolific artist, creating works in virtually every style and every format. A Russian- French artist of Belarusian origin, who passed away in southern France at nearly 100 years of age, Chagall also imagined large-scale paintings for the Paris Opéra as well as stained glass windows for the cathedrals of Metz and Reims, among other major artworks. For three decades, the gigantic A Wheatfield on a Summer’s Afternoon was part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection, but this year it moved to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Les Blés de Weil
To celebrate the launch of the high jewellery collection Les Blés de Chanel last summer, the French maison asked French artist Gad Weil to stage an installation on Paris’ Place Vendôme. Inspired by wheat and entitled Les Blés de Weil, the installation was situated right in front of the Ritz Paris Hotel and featured a profusion of stalks of golden wheat blowing in the Parisian breeze. Weil transformed the very urban Parisian landscape into a pastoral scene, stunning passersby and encouraging them to walk through the fields via cleverly set paths and walkways. The artist sought to create a dialogue between two natural elements: the wheat and the all-encompassing Parisian sky. By growing toward to the sky, the wheat is in fact asking viewers for attention, with the ultimate aim of reaching the faraway heavens. Les Blés de Weil ran from July 1 to July 7, 2016, in Paris, before moving to Saumur in western France.