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Plowing the Fields

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Plowing the Fields

oil on canvas
24 in. x 36 in. (60.96 cm x 91.44 cm)
Museum Purchase: Gift of Dr. and Mrs. R. Huntington Breed II, Mrs. Elenore Freedman, the Friends, Mr. and Mrs. Saul Greenspan, Mr. and Mrs. James W. Griswold, Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Holcombe, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Swope, Mr. and Mrs. Davis P. Thurber, and Mr. and Mrs. Kimon S. Zachos, 1987.4

William Zorach


Although William Zorach is perhaps best known as a sculptor, he began his career as a pioneering modernist painter. Born in Lithuania, he came to the United States at a young age and eventually settled with his family in Cleveland, Ohio. He began to study painting and printmaking, and by 1907 he was taking his first courses at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Study in Paris followed, and there, in 1910, Zorach met his future wife, Marguerite Thompson (1887-1968). Both shared an interest in avant-garde art, and after their marriage in late 1912, the Zorachs lived and worked in New York. William painted actively through the 1910s and early 1920s, but by 1922 he had turned to sculpture as his primary means of expression.

As a sculptor, Zorach almost single-handedly revived the technique of direct carving from stone and wood. Critics admired the massive simplicity of his human and animal figures, and the distinctiveness of his work marked him as a leader in a new generation of American sculptors. Although Zorach's subjects and style changed little over the years, the artist enjoyed success throughout his career. In addition to his sculpture, Zorach was a longtime teacher at the Art Students League of New York as well as the author of a book on sculpture and an autobiography, Art Is My Life. Zorach died in 1966.

The late 1910s were an especially fruitful period in the careers of William and Marguerite Zorach. During summers spent in New Hampshire (1915, 1917-18) and Provincetown, Massachusetts (1916), the Zorachs absorbed Expressionist and Cubist styles, blending these with the Fauvism that they had developed while studying art together in France. With intuitive skill, both artists were able to combine the different movements, reformulating them into personal idioms characterized by bold forms and surprising lyricism. Despite their careful study of abstract and Expressionist modes, however, William and Marguerite remained strongly informed by their surroundings. Seldom straying from real subjects, their vision represents a unique confluence of avant-garde style and the New England scene.

Painted in 1917, William Zorach's Plowing the Fields depicts the mountainous terrain in the vicinity of the artists' summer residence at "Echo Farm" near Plainfield, New Hampshire. Just below the center of the canvas, two figures plow a field with the aid of horses, cutting undulating pink furrows in the green turf. A herd of black-and-white farm animals grazes underneath pine trees in the lower right, while a dead tree and several wildflowers draw attention to the foreground. In the background, rolling hills and distant forests give way to purple mountains.

Although there is a hint of Cubism in the layered, collagelike quality of the landscape elements, the arbitrary color and poetic feeling of Zorach's composition point more directly to the work of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). A leader of the so-called Fauves (wild beasts), Matisse took prevailing Neoimpressionist modes a step further, generating a new style based on striking juxtapositions of color and stylized delineation of forms. Nonetheless, Matisse's subjects were often intimate or idyllic in nature, belying the "wildness" of his technique. Looking to classical imagery of bathers, dancers, and musicians, Matisse's best-known works were in effect modern pastorales, celebrating the vitality of the earth and the joy of youth.

Plowing the Fields parallels Matisse's works in its use of bright pinks, greens, and purples. Placed in close proximity to one another, the colors make a strong impact and vie with the composition itself for the viewer's attention. The sketchlike, almost calligraphic rendering of figures, trees, and mountains also recalls Matisse. In addition, Zorach's basic themes, the fertility of the land and its cycles of death and rebirth, resonate with Matisse's own arcadian outlook.

Matisse, however, was only a starting point for Zorach. In general, Plowing the Fields is less formal than the French artist's work. There is more detail and the sense of the subject's basis in reality is more convincing. Whereas Matisse and other European avant-garde artists sought primarily to respond to previous movements in art, Zorach and his fellow Americans tended to use the outward trappings of modern style to express their personal responses to a given subject. To a certain extent, this explains the ease with which Zorach was able to synthesize Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism. For Zorach, modernist styles helped him to realize his own goals as an artist, which he explained in a statement printed on the occasion of his inclusion in the important Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, held in New York in 1916:

It is the inner spirit of things that I seek to express, the essential relation of forms and colors to universal things. Each form and color has a spiritual significance to me, and I try to combine those forms and colors within my space to express that inner feeling which something in nature or life has given me. The moment I place one line or color upon my canvas, that moment I feel the need of other lines and colors to express the inner rhythm. I am organizing a new world in which each form and color exists and lives only in so far as it has meaning in relation to every other form and color in that space.(1)

Plowing the Fields was originally owned by William and Arlene Kent, early patrons of the Zorachs. The painting entered the Currier collection in 1987 and is today one of the Museum's premier examples of American modernism.



1. William Zorach quoted in Marilyn Friedman Hoffman, Marguerite and William Zorach: The Cubist Years: 1915-1918 (ex. cat. Currier Gallery of Art, 1987), p. 19.


Marilyn Friedman Hoffman, Marguerite and William Zorach: The Cubist Years: 1915-1918. Ex. cat. Currier Gallery of Art, 1987.

Donelson F. Hoopes. William Zorach: Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings, 1911-1922. Ex. cat. Brooklyn Museum, 1968.

1985 Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, NY, "Mabel Dodge: The Salon Years, 1912-1917." Sept. 28 - Nov. 2, cat. no. 29.

1986-1987 "The Advent of Modernism: Post -Impressionism and North American Art, 1900-1918." Organized by High Museum. Traveled to: High Museum, Atlanta, GA, March 4 - May 11, 1986; Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, FL, June 22 - Aug. 31, 1986; The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Nov. 26, 1986 - Jan. 19, 1987; Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Feb. 21 - April 19, 1987.

1987 "Marguerite and William Zorach: The Cubist Years: 1915 - 1918." Organized by the Currier Gallery of Art. Traveled to: Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, Jan. 11 - Feb. 15; Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, March 7 - April 19; Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME, April 26 - May 31; Robert Hull Fleming Museum of Art, Burlington, VT, June 12 - Aug. 16 (Only shown at the Currier Gallery of Art and The Berkshire Museum).

1992 New Hampshire Historical Society, Concord, NH, "At What Cost? Shaping the Land We Call New Hampshire." April 22 - Dec. 31.

1995 Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Keene State College, Keene, NH, "Selections of Figurative Art from the Collection of the Currier Gallery of Art." Sept. 16 - Dec. 3.

2001-2002 Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME, "Harmonies and Contrasts: The Art of Marguerite and William Zorach." Nov. 8, 2001 - Jan. 6, 2002.

2006 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, "Painting Summer in New England." April 18 - Sept. 4.

2006-2007 Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME, "Masterpieces from the Currier Museum of Art." Sept. 2006 - Oct. 1, 2007.

2010 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "From Homer to Hopper: American Watercolor Masterworks from the Currier Museum of Art." March 6 - June 7.

2011 University of New Hampshire Museum of Art, Durham, NH, "Full Circle: Dahlov Ipcar's Circle Paintings With a Round of Marguerite and William Zorach." Sept. 9 - Oct. 19.

2018 "The Cornish Colony" Currier Museum of Art, Feb. 10 - May 20.

Gift to Arlene Kent
Gift to her son, William Kent
Purchased by Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, NY through Jeffrey Hoffeld & Co., New York, NY
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 1987

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