Samuel Palmer was the leader of the artistic brotherhood known as The Ancients; youthful devotees of William Blake who were attracted to the moral and aesthetic values of early Renaissance art. Meeting in his cottage at Shoreham, Kent, they reveled in the discovery of an unspoiled countryside that evoked the pastoral ideals of a bygone era. They made art that probed the hidden essence beneath the visible world; enchanted landscapes and rural scenes where every sheepfold, star and furrow is charged with spiritual significance.
A Londoner by birth, Palmer was slow to understand the gritty realities that were facing agricultural laborers in the early 1830s. The motif of the nocturnal harvest may reflect the dissonance between his vision of a perfect rural society and the unrest that was upending a wide swath of agrarian England as desperate workers agitated against mechanization and political corruption. Matthew Hargraves of the Yale Center for British Art notes that “in 1832, just before painting this small oil, Palmer had written a blistering attack on reform in a pamphlet addressed to the voters around Shoreham. He urged them to maintain the established order, and railed against the reformers, claiming, ‘We are men of peace and they are beasts of prey. We are strongest by day. They ravine in the night, for their optics are adapted to darkness, and it is now a very dark night for Europe. The radicals are elated, for it is a dark and foggy night.’” It is therefore “little wonder,” observes Hargraves, that in The Harvest Moon “Palmer’s vision of the night created an alternate world, an idyllic place, where the harsh realities of rural life and political change are smoothed away, and their toil becomes part of the seductive beauty of the nocturnal landscape.”