In The Harvesters' Return, Stott addressed one of the great themes of nineteenth century poetry and art. Painted in the mid-century by J-F Millet and Jules Breton, it was imbued with sentiment. In Millet the connections between rural life and Christian virtue were forged. The weary gleaners and scythers return in the afterglow, laden with nature's bounty. One part of the seasonal cycle has drawn to a close and 'all is safely gathered in'. With George Heming Mason's Harvest Moon, 1872, (Tate Britain), the Royal Academy received what must have been regarded for its day as the definitive treatment of the theme. Mason's, Walker's, Wetherbee's and Macbeth's Virgilian England of the period derived as much from Palmer as it did from Millet and Breton. Housman, writing in 1900 considered the early influence of Millet on Stott's generation. Specifically Stott, 'found himself ... in dangerous possession of just those resources which modern French training pushes so much to the front as in themselves the be all and end all of art, but which need to be strictly schooled and subordinated for the development of true individuality' (Laurence Housman, 'Mr Edward Stott, Painter of the Field and of the Twilight', The Magazine of Art, 1900, pp. 529-30).
It gave way to a more factual approach in the 1880s with the British followers of Jules Bastien-Lepage and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, of whom Edward Stott was a leading member. Yet Stott's peasants, in works like The Harvesters' Return, have neither the stolid, animal-like passivity of Millet's, nor the effete posing of Mason's, nor the cold, documentarist style of early Lhermitte.1 They are possessed of a truly bucolic spirit which comes from their sense of themselves, functioning within a self-contained community. This sense is best expressed in the attitude to time. The elderly peasant follows the boy, youth leading age. The boy looks up towards the spectator; he is not yet cowered by experience.
Stott quickly realised that his metier was not suited to the large 'democratic' exhibition-piece. In this sense it is instructive to compare Henry Herbert La Thangue's Travelling Havesters, 1897 (private collection) with the present work. Both are twilight scenes showing labourers walking towards the spectator, but where La Thangue attempts an almost photographic sense of immediacy, Stott's figures are enveloped in the mystery of evening. And while one picture is painted for a public gallery, to be seen at a distance, the other, Stott's, is domestic and intimate. A.C.R. Carter considered that he had 'this rare gift for visual selection' which was 'totally distinct from the microscopic capacity of connoting, like the relentless camera, every twig, leaf, pebble, and blade of grass revealed in the light' ('Edward Stott and his Work', The Art Journal, 1899, pp. 294-8).
1 When the present picture was exhibited in 1899 at the Academy the size given was 26 x 31 in.. It entered the important collection of George McCulloch, where it hung alongside the most celebrated works by Whistler, Leighton and Bastien-Lepage. It was reduced in size at some point late in Stott's career, possibly because the wider landscape format which did not contain additional figures, diluted the effect of the central pair. We assume that if he did not instigate the reduction, he at least approved it, re-signing it 'ES'.