Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on March 4, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:
Melting Pot: Art That Looks Like America
by Martha R. Severens
In 1908, Israel Zangwill's timely play, The Melting Pot, was performed in Washington, D.C. In the first act, a character proclaims, "America is God's crucible, the great melting pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!" At the same time, Ellis Island, the gateway to America for thousands of immigrants, was operating at full capacity.
The profound impact of immigration on the evolution of American culture is reflected in the exhibition Melting Pot: Art that Looks Like America at the Greenville County Museum of Art. Drawn from the museum's collection, it explores not only the ethnic diversity implied by "melting pot" but also the variety of subjects and styles that characterizes American art.
Dedicated to American art, the collection in Greenville, South Carolina, has a focus on works that relate to the South, though the definition is broad and allows the inclusion of important works by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Josef Albers, who both worked in the region. Melting Pot features many pieces from the museum's Southern collection, but it is also supplemented by other works that reflect the storyline.
A chronological thread runs through the installation, beginning with an example of colonial portraiture by Charleston, South Carolina, artist Jeremiah Theus. Like many immigrants, Theus was a religious refugee; a member of a Protestant sect in Switzerland, he settled along the Edisto River in the 1730s. With little formal training, he emerged from the status of a sign painter to a successful portraitist of Charleston's merchants, planters, and their families. His portrait of Mrs. Ralph Izard shows a prim but hardly handsome woman in a stylish dress, probably inspired by a mezzotint of an English portrait.
The interaction of white settlers and Native Americans is addressed in Benjamin Hawkins and the Creek Indians. Assigned by Thomas Jefferson to work with the Creeks in the Flint River area of Georgia, Hawkins taught them husbandry and the use of the plow. The unidentified painter of this canvas has overtly placed a plow at the midpoint of his composition while the still life at the right indicates that the harvest was abundant. The landscape behind the figures is dotted with flocks, each with numerous offspring, an indication of the success of Hawkins's venture. The artist was probably not an eyewitness to the events in distant Georgia, and it is unknown why and for whom he painted this subject, but it may have been for propaganda. In all likelihood, the painting was done about 1805, well before the War of 1812, by which time Jefferson's relatively humane policy toward Native Americans was abandoned as Creeks and other tribes were moved westward.
The subtitle of the exhibition, Art that Looks Like America, is literally illustrated by a series of landscapes that depicts such natural wonders as Niagara Falls in watercolors by Charles Fraser, and Natural Bridge by John Moran. Fraser, of Charleston, South Carolina, specialized in miniatures and was largely self-taught, though as a schoolboy he took art lessons from a local engraver, Thomas Coram. Perhaps at Coram's instigation, while still a teenager, Fraser began a series of sketchbooks that include pen-and-ink sketches that are direct copies from travel books of places like Portugal and Wales that Fraser would never see. More significant, however, are the many watercolor views of Charleston and its environs that record plantations belonging to family and friends. Dating to about 1800, these remarkable sketches are precocious examples of an emerging landscape tradition.
Although he left no record of having traveled to Niagara, Fraser appears to have been fascinated by it. The Museum owns four of his watercolors of the area, each presenting the site from a different viewpoint. Fraser liberally employed a variety of landscape conventions; in the view from Goat Island, for instance, the gesturing man in the foreground and the rocks and dead branches at the left direct the viewer's gaze into the distance. Clearly Fraser used these techniques to convey a sense of the vastness and expansiveness of Niagara.
The exhibition's theme is also conveyed allegorically. America, personified by Lady Liberty, dominates Luther Terry's An Allegory of the North and the South. Draped in the Stars and Stripes, wearing a Liberty cap, and wielding a fasces (an ancient symbol of authority and unity), Liberty attempts reconciliation between the two regions on the brink of the Civil War.
Reconciliation is again symbolized in James De Veaux's The Bandit at Home, which was painted in Italy. In a setting reminiscent of Renaissance masters, the uncivilized outlaw is tempered by feminine grace and childhood innocence. Like Terry's Allegory, this painting is an exceptional composition without direct precedents. A native of Charleston and a private pupil of Henry Inman, De Veaux spent his time in Italy painting original images as well as copies, a practice he castigated, saying, "Modern artists of course dwindle into mere copyists -- and poor miserable devils they are." The Bandit at Home was also De Veaux's last canvas. While traveling from Venice to Rome, he was detained by customs officers because he lacked the proper papers. He caught a cold and shortly afterward died of consumption at age thirty-one.
While both Terry and De Veaux went abroad in pursuit of inspiration, Robert S. Duncanson left the safety of Cincinnati in 1850 and traveled south to Asheville, North Carolina, on a sketching trip. As a free African American, he ran considerable risks by entering the state, which at the time had stringent laws regarding the movement of free blacks. For Duncanson to travel under such circumstances is remarkable, but he may have had the advantage of a light complexion.
Although largely self-taught, by midcareer Duncanson was considered the "best landscape painter in the West" and was the first African-American artist to make a grand tour of Europe. Despite his race, he achieved unprecedented renown in the antebellum art world. Descended from emancipated slaves from Virginia, Duncanson was born in upstate New York. Aspiring to be more than an artisan, in about 1840 he moved to Cincinnati, a strategic cultural and economic center with a significant population of free black people. Among his patrons were several noted abolitionists, including Nicholas Longworth, whose mansion, with its series of landscape murals by Duncanson, is now the home of the Taft Museum.
View of Asheville is one of two known paintings by Duncanson that resulted from his 1850 trip. At the time, Asheville had a population of about 800. Duncanson's painting is the earliest known view of the town. It is a rare example of a landscape painted by a black artist working in the South before the Civil War. It is believed that the canvas was painted for James W. Patton, though is it unclear whether he commissioned it, purchased it from the artist, or acquired it through a third party. Ironically, Patton was the second largest slave owner in Asheville. The painting remained in the hands of the Patton family until 2003.
The exhibition includes several nineteenth-century paintings that touch on the history of slavery and emancipation. The subject of Carl Hirschberg's A Coffle on the Natchez Trace is the transportation of slaves from the upper South into the Deep South, where they were sold to work on plantations. Traveling on foot in caravans, or coffles, slaves were shackled together for control. A German immigrant who had arrived in New York at age six just as the Civil War began, Hirschberg seems to have empathized with people who suffered forced displacement.
Even though he fought for the Confederacy, Virginian John Adams Elder was sympathetic to the plight of rural black people. He spent much of his career painting portraits of major military figures and Civil War battle scenes, but Elder also rendered several genre scenes, including The Family. Until it was acquired by the Greenville County Museum of Art in 2002, the painting belonged to descendants of General William Mahone, a major patron and collector of Elder's work. Painted around 1877, The Family evokes two contradictory interpretations. The setting, clothing, and activities describe a time before emancipation and suggest that little has changed since. However, the lively exuberance of the dancing youth silhouetted against a sun-filled doorway may symbolize a new spirit of freedom and hope as he moves forward toward brighter days.
Compared to Elder's rural interior, Gustave Forsberg's painting, signed and dated 1886, reflects Gilded Age refinement. A native of Sweden, Forsberg earned a considerable reputation specializing in murals in the Washington, D.C., area. The likeness of the aristocratic woman on the left and the precision of the paintings and furnishings suggest a specific portrait; unfortunately, the subject's identity is unknown, as is Forsberg's original title.
Thomas S. Noble, like Elder, served the Confederacy and later painted compassionate treatments about African Americans after the Civil War. When he painted The Sybil in 1896, he was more interested in individuality than the institution of slavery. With its rich decor and colorful tapestries, The Sibyl reflects the influences of Orientalism, suggesting that Noble saw his figure as the exotic other.
At the same time that Noble explored Orientalism, George de Forest Brush painted Native Americans with a similarly romantic point of view. After almost seven years in France, where his studies emphasized draftsmanship, firm outlines, and rich color, Brush went to California, Wyoming, and Montana and lived among the Arapahoe, Shoshone, and Crow. Many of Brush's paintings record Native-American artistic pursuits such as pottery making, weaving, and headdress making. Greenville's painting, In the Dark Forest, depicts the simple act of a lone Native American contemplating a fish that he has pulled from a stream. It is a poignant meditation on America's loss of innocence and harmony with nature in the wake of industrialization.
Manifest Destiny, which altered for all time the political status and living conditions of Native Americans, had run its course by the time of the Civil War. But the concept of the pioneer as a uniquely American phenomenon persisted and was even used by N. C. Wyeth in a painting for an advertising campaign. In The Widened Vision, a Paul Bunyan-like character surveys the landscape and the future, represented by the radiant city in the distance. As he moves inexorably forward with his oxen, he will conquer the great expanse of valley that separates him from his ultimate goal, a gleaming progressive metropolis. Ironically, Wyeth painted this expansionist theme in the mid-1920s, a period of national isolationism following World War I.
In addition to works about African Americans and Native Americans, the exhibition encompasses twentieth-century art by and about immigrants. Many artists arrived in this country as exiles escaping poverty and religious persecution. Rather than celebrate the virtues of their adopted homeland, some Jewish artists such as Abbo Ostrowsky tended to represent socially conscious subjects. Ostrowsky emigrated in 1908 from Russia with some training in art and settled in New York. He taught at various settlement and neighborhood houses and for forty years directed the Educational Alliance Art School, where the students were primarily Jewish immigrants. Like his contemporary Robert Henri, Ostrowsky painted his subjects, frequently his students, in a naturalistic style. In his teaching, he avoided the practice of drawing from plaster casts and preferred instead to depict the living world around him. His Worker portrays a stern steadfast figure emerging from a darkened background, emblematic of real-life circumstances.
Charles Hawthorne's Mayme Noons is similarly direct in its simple background and frontal placement of the figure. It also demonstrates Hawthorne's credo, "Approach your subject in all humility and reverence -- make yourself highly sensitive to its beauty." This tactic may account for his ability to deeply penetrate the psyches of his sitters. Like Ostrowsky, Hawthorne was foremost a teacher who used available models. For three decades he conducted an art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a picturesque fishing village on the tip of Cape Cod where many of the residents were hardworking Portuguese fishermen and their families.
In addition to revealing the ethnic and national diversity of this country, other twentieth-century paintings in Melting Pot embrace Americana. Thomas Hart Benton's Prize Crop, for instance, was designed as an advertisement for the American Tobacco Company. Closely identified with Regionalism, an art movement that celebrated America, Benton was an ideal spokesman for a quintessentially American crop. In preparation for the ad campaign, the company sent Benton to Georgia to sketch tobacco cultivation. When he returned with sketchbooks filled with black workers, he was told they were unacceptable because of associations with slavery; the company feared this might impact sales. Benton then went to North Carolina to witness "hillbillies" and was later instructed, "Everything about tobacco must look healthy." In keeping with this view, Benton's virile farmer, placed close to the picture plane and dramatically lit, handles the large leaves of his crop with great reverence. The entire experience made Benton cynical. "All in all," he said, "however, this business and art experience was pretty disheartening. It was too much of a whoring affair finally to inspire anything but disgust."
America witnessed another wave of refugees, this time fleeing from Germany and the rise of Nazism, in the 1930s. Josef Albers was among the many artists and scholars who fled and later shaped generations of students in this country. Shortly after his arrival, Albers joined the faculty of the newly established Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. He was a former student and faculty member at the Bauhaus, a German school whose mission was to unite art and design aesthetics with modern industrial technology. Black Mountain officials were not deterred by the fact that Albers spoke no English, and for fifteen years his philosophy and teaching style dominated the entire program. Like the Bauhaus, Black Mountain was a young and idealistic institution, a utopian commune operating on a modest budget.
In an article for Art News, Elaine de Kooning, who sat in on Albers' classes during the summer of 1948, called him "a master of optical illusion." She quoted his comment, "The concern of the artist is with the discrepancy between physical fact and psychological effect." In Construction (On Yellow), for example, there are conflicting illusions: the white square at the painting's center, a harbinger of the Homage to the Square series, both recedes and projects. Similarly, the longest black diagonal line can be read as either the element closest to or farthest from the picture plane.
Toward the late 1930s, American artists living abroad also began to feel wary as Hitler gained more power. William H. Johnson, an African American from Florence, South Carolina, had spent the better part of twelve years in Europe. Initially he was in Paris, the cultural capital of the world and a Mecca for writers and artists; he studied there briefly before traveling to southern France, where he came under the spell of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Chaim Soutine. There Johnson began a series of expressionist paintings that featured intense colors and bold brushwork.
In 1930, Johnson settled in Kerteminde, Denmark, a picturesque fishing village, where he shared studio space with his Danish wife, Holcha, who was a textile artist. The influence of the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch is vividly demonstrated in the hand-colored woodblock print Little Talk, an intimate self-portrait with his wife.
In 1938 Johnson returned to the States, having lived abroad since 1926. The climate for African Americans had changed considerably in the interval, and artists were beginning to explore their African roots. Johnson, along with Romare Bearden and others, discovered tribal sculpture, fostered by Picasso's example and nurtured by the museums and galleries of New York.
Bearden was a native of North Carolina, but, as part of the African-American migration north, he was raised in Pittsburgh and Harlem. Equating the improvisational aspects of collage to jazz, Bearden adapted collage as the medium best suited to his temperament; he also recognized its ultimate origin in African art. Salome illustrates the beheading of John the Baptist. It incorporates murder, seduction, treachery, fear, luxury, jealousy, slander, greed, and lust for power. Using actual fabric for Herod's cloak and hat, Bearden artfully employed the collage technique to suggest the sumptuousness of his court. The mask-like faces, reminiscent of African sculpture and Byzantine Madonnas, reflect the dispassionate interest of the participants who are bound to their respective fates. Silhouetted against a bright white background and highlighted by foil, a modern version of a gold-leaf halo, is John's head on a platter, the standard symbol of his martyrdom. Inspired by eclectic sources -- African, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Renaissance art as well as Cubism -- Bearden collected ideas much as he collected papers, photographs, and fabrics for his collages.
Melting Pot: Art that Looks Like America is one in a series of thematic exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection of the Greenville County Museum of Art. Like other projects, such as Southern Scene and Impressionism in Context, this current exhibition allows the museum to showcase its collection in a creative and meaningful manner while introducing a variety of new acquisitions.
1 De Veaux in Robert W. Gibbes, A Memoir of James De Veaux of Charleston, S.C. (Columbia, 1846), p. 68.
2 Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 30 May 1861. See Joseph D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821 - 1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993).
3 Hawthorne, "On Painting," in Richard Mühlberger, Charles Webster Hawthorne (Chesterfield, Massachusetts: Chameleon Books, 1999), p. 103.
4 Benton, An Artist in America (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), p. 293.
5 Elaine de Kooning, "Albers Paints a Picture," Art News,
November 1950, p. 41.
About the author
Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 4, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.
This article appeared in the March - April 2004 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition, Melting Pot: Art that Looks Like America, that was on view at the Greenville County Museum of Art in the summer of 2004.
Resource Library wishes to
extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions
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