Blacks as Portrayed in Southern Painting
By: A. Everette James, Jr.
Southern art from the
pre-Civil War period through World War II mirrored images
generally fashioned throughout America. However, because of
the Southern sense of place and the intimacy of black-white
relationships in the region, there are certain identifiable
differences from paintings from other parts of the country.
From mid-19th century until
Reconstruction, blacks were largely dehumanized in Southern
works of art. It was as if blacks were not given individual
identities by the artists but were illustrated more as
caricatures. Their skin color was usually depicted as coal
black and the thick African-American ruby lips were supported
by a protruding set of overly large teeth of almost subhuman
primal appearance. This contrived physical appearance and the
activities engaged in by the blacks in these paintings cast
them as buffoons or at best; not-true members of the American
Sambo and Zip Coon were
cultural generalizations imposed upon blacks by white society
and served as the inspiration for images seen in paintings
rendered during this time period. These restrictive
stereotypes relegated blacks to dehumanizing roles and added
to the justification of the white denial of their humanity.
As one might imagine, during the
Civil War the social fabric of the South was rearranged and in
the early years following the Civil War, changes in depiction of
blacks in Southern paintings did occur. However, by the
mid-1870s the hardships and frustrations brought about by the
unanticipated complexity of Reconstruction were often expressed
in art by an idealized nostalgia for the pre-war relationships
between the races as they chose to remember it.
Tent Revival in Florida, Edwin
The images during this period
selectively cast the pre-Civil War years as one of harmony and
tranquility between whites and blacks. While this
characterization was certainly not entirely accurate, it did
have a measure of truth and was a popular attitude in the South
as well as to a lesser extent in the rest of the country.
Memory is unintentionally selective and certain black-white
relationships were given more compassion than they deserved in
presenting the social order between whites and blacks in the mid
Artists, painting in the South
like William Aiken Walker, presented a meticulous but one-sided
imagery of black life in the South, pre- and post-Civil War.
His carpetbagger blacks became an icon provoking an unexpected
dearth of social commentary after the regression of the post-war
nostalgia. Walker’s later nostalgic images were rare but equally
as popular among whites in both the North and South. His larger
depictions of plantation life have fetched vast sums from
museums and collectors despite their often biased and inaccurate
portrayal of blacks.
Very little changed in the
depiction of blacks in Southern art following Reconstruction
until the period of urbanization of America. The response from
existent contemporary social change did not begin until the last
decade of the 19th and first decade of the 20th
century. The alterations of the social fabric by this movement
from agrarian to industrial/urban life led to changes in the
status of and the images depicting blacks gradually evolved and
came to affect even certain areas of the Deep South.
Blacks were sometimes dignified
in paintings with clear individuality and their physical
characteristics were not nearly so simian and demeaning as they
had been in the middle to late 19th century. These images were
more representative of the true social order and were certainly
more representative of the truth than the very nostalgic
paintings composed during the period immediately post Civil War
and during early Reconstruction.
Alfred Herber Hutty
(1878-1954) Lady with Flower Basket watercolor on paper.
The effect of the First World
War and other foreign conflicts of the early decades of the 20th
century seemed to have little effect upon the artistic depiction
of blacks. However, technical and stylistic movements in the
art world itself were to have significant effects, in particular
the emergence of realism. The Eight, later enlarged as a
movement known as the Ashcan School, was a very influential
force through the first four decades of the 20th
century in American art. These artists celebrated physical
labor, the primary activity of blacks.
In some ways the emphasis upon
the physicality in this genre elevated the status of the
depiction of the black male body. The images of Robert Henri,
George Luks, and especially George Wesley Bellows legitimized
the unclad upper male torso. At the same time black athletes
were gaining national and international recognition and these
became subjects for important works by artists working in this
The Ashcan School’s influence
was at first mainly in the northern cities where these artists
painted alleyways, trash cans, street urchins, prizefights, and
urban construction as well as squalor. However, their
particular form of realism had a profound effect upon the rest
of American art inspiring the regionalists such as Grant Wood,
Thomas Hart Benton, and Eugene Healon Thomason.
This influence is seen in the
characterization of blacks in art of the 1920s and 1930s by
Southern artists such as Alfred Hutty of Charleston, Christopher
Murphy Jr of Savannah, and later Charles Shannon of Montgomery.
Murphy, an aristocratic
Southerner, painted historical black churches as specific sites
and not the formulaic depiction of a structure beside a
moss-laden oak and a black graveyard. He dignified the black
architectural legacy as well as the people.
While the Harlem Renaissance was
in many ways a regional phenomenon, it did give rise in the
South to a heightened awareness and appreciation of the inherent
creativity and talent among blacks. These artists of the Harlem
Renaissance ranged from the self-taught painters to those
classically trained like Edwin Harleston of Charleston who
trained at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (BMFA) School.
The images from the black
artists characteristically showed blacks and their activities in
a realistic manner and in some ways legitimized them as subjects
for fine art expression. As the opportunities for training at
schools such as the Art Students League, the Pennsylvania
Academy, the BMFA, and the National Academy of Design the
acceptance in fine art circles of their work and in juried
exhibitions broadened the scope of treatment of blacks as
The Works Progress Agency (WPA)
had a particular subagency (the Federal Cost Project) to create
images through paintings. Some 3,000 “artists” were hired and
they produced 10,000 works of art featuring vast latitude of
subjects. At the height of its activity and influence, the WPA
allowed a great deal of artistic freedom for its painters.
Thus, there was a spectrum of black images that came from that
effort depending upon the artist’s personal intent and not as
dictated by social influences as in previous times.
Certain blacks were gaining
national recognition for their achievements outside the arts,
entertainment, and sports; and black artists were gaining
confidence in depicting fellow blacks in responsible and
successful roles with little fear of rejection by the
establishment based upon racial subject matter.
As black artists gained in
national reputation, they became confident not only in
portraying accomplished blacks but everyday workers as well.
Their images gave the black figures dignity. At the same time,
all artists found that the public was more accepting of images
celebrating successful and powerful blacks. While there exists
some disparity in the depiction of blacks compared to whites,
great progress has been made and the character of American art,
in general, has benefited by this change.
One affirmation of value of art
depicting blacks in a positive manner has been the reaction of
the larger collecting public. The single icons of post-Civil
War black life by William Aiken Walker now regularly fetch
$15,000 to $20,000 and a large plantation scene recently brought
several hundred thousand dollars. A representative work by
Alfred Hutty or Elizabeth O’Neill Verner of black life in
Charleston will sell for $10,000 to $30,000. The works of black
genre by Christopher Murphy Jr. remain underpriced but have a
wide range from $5000 to $15,000 and Maria Howard Weeden (a rare
Huntsville, Alabama, artist) from $10,000 to $15,000.
Certain black artists like
Robert Duncanson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Will Henry Johnson, Edwin
Harleston, and Romaire Bearden through efforts of the Harmon
Foundation and public exhibitions have become appropriately
recognized nationally. Works by Tanner and Bearden sell for over
$100,000 and the rare Harleston $15,000 to $20,000. A "southern"
Duncanson recently sold for over $3000,000 at auction.
Art texts with black imagery
reflect the improved status of blacks in American life, but the
traditional images of an earlier period discussed here remind us
of the complexity of this issue and a place which we do not wish
to revisit The evolution of black imagery in America has not
been one of consistent progress but its impetus has been forward
and a reflection of the progress in social changes and public
I am appreciative of the thoughts and publications of colleagues
David Driskell, John Shelton Reed, Jesse Poesch and Rick Powell
in preparation of this manuscript.
About the author:
Everett James, a
native of rural Martin County, NC., was educated at the
University of NC in Chapel Hill, Duke Medical School, Harvard,
and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Dr. James
taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University College London, and
Vanderbilt. He has published more than 20 books and 500 articles
and established St. James Place, a restored historic Primitive
Baptist Church exhibiting over 400 examples of North Carolina
pottery. He and his wife, Dr. Nancy Farmer, have donated
their collection of Nell Cole Graves pottery to the North
Carolina Pottery Museum at Seagrove and a survey collection of
250 examples to the Chapel Hill Museum. They live in Chapel Hill
and are active in community affairs.
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