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 social establishment.

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 (Eugene) White

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 19th century.

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 genre.

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 subjects.

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 attitudes.


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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