Behind a Work in AWE’s Collection: William Kurelek’s Ukrainian Farmer’s Wife in Prairie Winter
Text written by Sydney McArthur, AWE Student Intern, Art History and Museum Studies at Western University.
William Kurelek was born in rural Alberta in 1927 and grew up in rural Manitoba. His grandparents and parents came to Canada during the first and second waves of Ukrainian immigration to the country. His work explores the mundane reality of Depression-era life, and his connections with Ukraine and Europe as a first-generation Canadian. Later in his career, his work became reflective of the Cold War and the connections between Canada and Europe. 1970 marked the first time that he visited Ukraine, after which more of his works began to depict his cultural heritage and Canada’s multiculturalism.
Ukrainian Farmer’s Wife in Prairie Winter is reminiscent of Kurelek’s childhood in rural Alberta, depicting a peaceful winter farmland scene. The composition can be compared to works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, specifically The Return of the Hunters (1565), also known as The Hunters in the Snow. Both Bruegel and Kurelek use vast landscapes to show multiple narratives at once.
In this work, we see someone watering their cows in the foreground, pushing forcibly on the lever of the water pump, while a puff of breath escapes their mouth. This scene evokes the laborious work that goes into farming throughout the year, and the lifestyle that many Ukrainian immigrants shared during the early twentieth century. On the horizon, a quaint farmhouse is accompanied by a bright red barn. The house comes alive with smoke escaping the chimney, and a clothesline jutting out to the left. The viewer is left to wonder whether or not the person and their cows are from this farm, or perhaps a different one out of view.
To the left of the water trough is a dog playing with a small black cow, which may be the calf of the larger black cow near the trough. The two creatures face each other tentatively. This detail adds a playfulness — or even warmth — to the stillness of the landscape.
On the road in the distance, to the right side of the canvas, four figures are walking off. They seem to be holding books and bags; perhaps they are children on their way home from school. On the opposite end of the road are a horse and carriage. We may stop to wonder if these potential students just got off the carriage, or if the two are unrelated.
Ukrainian Farmer’s Wife in Prairie Winter gives a calm, quiet view of a harsh prairie winter and the experience of many Ukrainian immigrants at the time. The details offer a lens into warmth and playfulness that would have been present, even when strenuous work needed to be done.
William Kurelek’s Ukrainian Farmer’s Wife in Prairie Winter (1966) depicts vast snow-covered fields underneath clear skies. The scale of the subject matter painted here pales next to the seemingly infinite fields. In the painting’s foreground is a water trough from which several are drinking. Next to the trough is a pump enclosed within a platform with two wooden walls, where a figure is pushing down on the lever of the pump to fill the trough. Some firewood leans against the wall behind them. Further to the left of the trough is a smaller cow and a dog facing each other, seemingly playing.
In the distance, a road runs horizontally across the entire painting, on which a small horse and carriage are moving towards the left edge of the canvas. Four people are seen walking in the opposite direction, near the right edge of the canvas.
On the horizon line, where the fields and the skies seem to touch, are a white farmhouse and a red barn. There’s smoke coming out of the farmhouse’s chimney, and a clothesline jutting out from the left side of the house. Behind the barn, to the left, are large piles of hay, and to the right is a weathervane.
Throughout the landscape, one can make out tiny details of fence posts where the fields meet each other, and where the fields meet the ditches before the road.