The Semiotic Hay Cart

Semiotic analysis uses an approach which connects signs (images, words, or sounds) to codes through which we frame the world for understanding.  Codes can be social, scientific, aesthetic, mass media, or ideological, to name a few.  Codes are conventions or frameworks through which signs are given force and significance.

Every work of art is a system of signs that represent values, attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and practices.

Maurice Brazil Prendergast, American, born St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada (1859-1924), The Hay Cart, 1914, Oil on canvas, Gift of John R. and Eleanor R. Mitchell, 1973.1.46

A Maurice Prendergast painting from our permanent collection provides a good sign system to explore.  The Hay Cart was painted in 1914, a time of great turmoil in the world (World War One began that summer).  The Ashcan School, of which Prendergast was a member, had established itself in 1908 as a new force in American art-making.  Eschewing the European academic approach, the Ashcan artists instead emphasized everyday life in America.

The hay cart may seem to our digital eyes like a quaint subject to feature in a painting.  However, Prendergast was the most “modern” of the Ashcan.  His style showed his awareness of current trends in Europe and he likely enjoyed blending the tradition of moving cargo using a horse-drawn wagon with the latest avant-garde mode of painting.  In 1914, horses were still the primary energy source for moving people and things in urban cities.  Though automobiles and engines would soon take over, Prendergast seems to be recognizing the continuing importance of the horse-drawn cart with his very specific emphasis that is visually centered and again in the written title.  Prendergast further embellished his central image surrounding the hay cart with a pageantry of colorful hustling and bustling men and women and children.

Semiotic sign systems like our 107-year old painting featuring a hay cart may seem banal but we’ve all seen unbound hay being transported today atop a truck or tractor on country roads.  Hay remains an important economic farm product today as it was one hundred years ago.  According to Hay & Forage Grower, “In 2017, alfalfa farmers in 42 states produced dry hay valued at $7.9 billion.”

Signs are examined semiotically by breaking the sign into two parts: the form that conveys the content.  The form is called the signifier and the content is the signified.  Signifiers are also referred to as the denotation, and the signified as the connotation.  Connotations influence the significance of a sign with several and sometimes contradictory values.  Some connotations of the painted hay cart sign have changed—its now a quaint icon—and some, as we’ve shown, have stayed the same — it’s still a valued farm product.