Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950
by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge
Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized the value of contemporary subjects for the creative mind. He found significance in the ordinary and the quotidian, in "the philosophy of the street" as well as "the meaning of household life." In his famous essay "The American Scholar" (1837), he wrote: "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of?" he asked, and famously answered: "The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street."
Even as Emerson wrote, the meal and the ballad, the commonplace rites and sights of American life, were providing inspiration to a new generation of American genre artists. Although perhaps few in relation to those who celebrated their countrymen's mores and priorities, there were some who used their creative talents to critique the practices of the larger society. Such commentaries -- in paint or print, photography or song -- became especially familiar a century after Emerson's essay, during the desperate years of the Great Depression, when "social realists" decried the political and economic circumstances of the 1930s. But such socially motivated imagery had a long and noble tradition in this country, dating well back into our history. The impetus for the artist's pictorial statement -- which might be propagandistic or ironic, angry or bemused -- could come from within the society, or from outside but with effect felt here at home.
During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, urbanization and industrialization began the dramatic transformation of the young nation that was to culminate in great economic and political power a hundred years later. The changing aspect of American society, particularly its urban centers in the North and in newer states of the interior, was the result not only of internal migrations but of a rising tide of trans-Atlantic immigration as well. Charles F. Blauvelt, portraitist and genre painter active in New York from the late 1840s, based several compositions on the immigrant's experience; The Immigrants, circa 1850 (Hunter Museum of American Art) depicts the soulful guise of the uprooted newly arrived in America, while A German Immigrant Inquiring His Way, 1855 (fig. 14), features a colorfully garbed veteran of the midcentury European revolutions asking help from a black laborer, to the bemusement of passersby. About the same time, Pittsburgh painter David Gilmore Blythe, himself the son of Scottish immigrants, tackled similar issues but with very different effect. In Land of Liberty, circa 1858-60 (cat. no. 8), the artist treats the Irish immigrant in a genre scene that suggests Blythe's familiarity with European, especially British, caricature as it had evolved from William Hogarth's time. The scene uses the title of a Punch illustration by Richard Doyle, and like the British cartoonist, Blythe invests his image with a heavy dose of irony.  The new arrival, disembarked from the ship in the background, is met by a cigar store Indian offering a peace pipe filled with "native leaf," presumably sweeter than the foul variety smoked by the immigrant. The implicit critique of Irish immigrants and of treatment of the Native American is characteristic of Blythe's reformist views, rendered in his unique style, one of the most distinctive of the mid-nineteenth century.
If race relations between whites and Native Americans provided some artists with inspiration for social commentary, those between whites and blacks, whether enslaved or freed, inspired others even more so. The Kentucky-born Thomas Noble, who trained with Thomas Couture in Paris before returning to fight as an officer in the Confederate Army, earned appreciative notice with his postwar images of the atrocities of the slave system. The Price of Blood, painted in 1868 (cat. no. 50), is among his best known paintings on the racial theme, which also included John Brown's Blessing Just Before His Execution, 1867 (New-York Historical Society), and a trio on the history of blacks in America, the Past, Present and Future Conditions of the Negro (unlocated). The Price of Blood features a slave-owner father and his mulatto son, a subject that raises the midcentury fascination with, yet repulsion toward, miscegenation. Between them stands the slave buyer, who purchases the offspring with the gold coins stacked on the tabletop. The son's diffident air and averted gaze contrast with his hand-on-hip pose, a quotation from Gainsborough's elegant Blue Boy that some viewers took as an ironic, even inappropriate guise for a black. By contrast, his father-and-master's confrontational glare challenges the viewer. Behind him, we glimpse a portion of a Sacrifice of Isaac scene, in which Abraham offers up his son to Yahweh, a subject that reinforces the horror of the moment and lends poignant urgency to Noble's abolitionist theme.  Noble's painting, in short, is redolent of social issues that embroiled generations of Americans before, during, and after the Civil War.
The peace effected at Appomattox in 1865 paradoxically brought enormous change yet initiated the perpetuation of racial attitudes that had divided compatriots for years. The emancipation of the slaves and postwar policies of Reconstruction provided northern artists as well as former Confederates with themes for their paintings. Thomas Waterman Wood of Vermont, where he spent much of his career, had also lived in the South. It was in antebellum Baltimore that he began the genre paintings that brought him considerable notice in his lifetime, themes that he continued during his European sojourn and while living in Nashville (1859-62) and Louisville (1862-66) before returning to New York and Montpelier. His genre subjects generally extol the virtues of small-town life as he knew it in his youth in New England; within this class, however, there is a notable group of paintings of blacks, the subjects for which Wood is best remembered today -- sympathetic portrayals of the freedmen and women -- who elsewhere were often the subject of pictorial caricature and derision. His First Vote (cat. no. 68), in its focus on a single black figure, is similar to the series, A Bit of War History (Metropolitan Museum of Art), that Wood painted two years earlier. The three small canvases of Wood's series depicted stages in the life of a black Civil War soldier -- as contraband, recruit, and veteran -- and earned critical praise for their sensitivity and the story they relate: "their best qualities consist of the clearness with which they tell their story," wrote one admirer, "and the evident sympathy of the artist with his subject." Wood's black voter, painted in 1868, similarly tells a story with clarity and sympathy, describing the dramatic changes during the early years of Reconstruction; but unlike the soldier portraits, which were conceived as single figures, His First Vote is based on a larger, multi figure composition painted the preceding year, American Citizens (To the Polls) (fig. 15). In that watercolor, Wood presents an optimistic tableau of the nation's diverse electorate, all of equal standing in postwar America. Four types are represented by character studies that a contemporary identified as (right to left) "the Negro with his swelling eyelids. . . the Dutchman with his face and form square-built, indicating resolution; the Irishman, his facial lines short and nose turned up indicating mirth and good humor, and the Yankee with a face full of craft, which is implied by the sharp nose and thin eyelids." With His First Vote, Wood reprised the African American subject, which was the basis for his acclaim during his lifetime and underscored the importance of the freed black as part of the reconstituted American society.
The changes brought by Reconstruction, which Wood sensitively and optimistically depicted, were neither universally enduring nor endearing. Jim Crow laws, enacted in the late nineteenth century and upheld in the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, led to generations of segregation and racial strife. The Ku Klux Klan and other societies initiated a reign of terror even before Congressional reconstruction began, and although the Klan formally disbanded in 1869, its secretive program of intimidation continued well into the twentieth century.
Lamar Baker, painter and printmaker, treated these difficult racial themes in his Negro Spiritual series of 1943. Painted in New York during the dark days of World War II and taking inspiration from the social realists and regionalists of the preceding decade, the series reflects on the injustices African Americans suffered in Baker's native South. Baker admired the work of fellow southerner John McCrady, whose best-known painting, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1937 (St. Louis Museum of Art), may have suggested the source material for his own series even as it deterred him from tackling that well-known spiritual.  In Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen but Jesus (cat. no. 3), the first of the series, Baker provides a stage on which are enacted various incidents of Negro life: a police beating, Klan torture, arson, hospitalization, escape from a chain gang, baptism in a river, and, in the far distance, the hanging of a lynch victim's body from a bare tree. These vignettes surround an elaborate architectural set. A brick factory, probably a southern textile mill, and a white clapboarded church of the sort seen in rural settlements throughout the Black Belt are partially obscured by an ornate facade from whose shadowed depths emerge the cast-off shackles of slavery. The cathedral's jamb figures, in lieu of the usual medieval saints, are Africanized sculptures; above the portal, a frieze includes more standing figures and a craft like a dhow, further suggestions of distant cultural origins. In the gable, a circular inset presents a black man and woman isolated on a patch of ground, waiting with Job-like patience for deliverance from the troubles they've seen, as an angel swoops in to deliver divine intervention via modern telephone. Jesus is calling.
Gertrude Abercrombie responded to the racial politics of
the modern era with a similar intensity. Charlie Parker's Favorite
Painting, 1946 (cat. no. 1), is part of a sizable group of paintings
dealing with lynching. That grim subject motivated many American artists
from early in the twentieth century, reflecting a preoccupation with incidents
of racial discrimination and injustice. But instead of Baker's narrative
constructed through multiple vignettes, Abercrombie's is stark in its simplicity.
With no representation of human form, dead or alive, it is even more radically
minimal than Jacob Lawrence's treatment of the subject in his Migration
series, ''Another Cause Was Lynching. . ." (1940-41; Phillips
Collection), which included a hunched figure grieving beneath an empty noose.
On Abercrombie's empty stage, illuminated by silvery moonlight that gives
it a dreamlike, even surreal effect, a bare tree, noose, and ladder tell
the story of another casualty in the racial strife that sadly provided the
occasion for pictorial protests by generations of American artists.
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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:
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