African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay, (4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

The Turning Point

Trained in both Philadelphia and Paris, Henry O. Tanner’s (1859 – 1937) iconic The Banjo Lesson, 1839 became the breakthrough painting that unshackled African-American art and the representation of African-Americans in art from the ties of White America and its artists. This incredibly tender and soulful painting of a grandfather teaching his grandson to play the symbolic banjo became the “image of generational torch-passing,” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).

Here, finally we have agency – an African-American artist, painting something he could have seen reflected in a mirror.

Sitting in their humble abode, with the light finally focused on them, the “grandfather is the past, the old America of slavery and The Civil War, of oppression, racism, and poverty, while the boy, caught in the warm glow of the fire’s light, is the New America, of renewed opportunities, advancement, education, and new beginnings” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).

Other works of Henry O. Tanner.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (3/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Images of African-Americans in Antebellum Era Art

All through the 1800s, White artists depicted African-Americans as anonymous figures in the background, as unimportant figures in a larger group – never as the main focus of the painting. They were shown as waiters or as poor rural folk who are content with their lot in life. While Joshua Johnson showed sophisticated African-Americans in portraits, White artists showed them as poor marginalized figures.

George Caleb Bingham, The County Election, 1852
Thomas Harrison Matteson, The Turkey Shoot, 1857
Eastman Johnson, Old Kentucky Home, 1859

All through the Antebellum Era, African-Americans were a side note in art – they were not given center stage until after the Civil War when pioneering artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner put them there.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (2/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?

Robert S. Duncanson (1822 – 1871)

After Joshua Johnson, the next known Antebellum Era African-American artist is the exceptionally talented landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1822 – 1871). Born biracial and free in New York, Duncanson painted literary inspired landscapes in the Hudson River School style of American art.

Racial overtones are found in two of his paintings: View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky and Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853 painted a year after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the View he depicted two white children standing next to a Black man with scythe and a Black woman in the background hanging clothes to dry. He also showed a white family out on a leisurely picnic while the two African-Americans worked.  Kentucky had still not abolished slavery, and rural Kentucky contrasts sharply with the bustling city across the river. Through this painting Duncanson gives a visual of his outlook on slavery and the dependence of the bustling city on slave laborers. Cincinnati was a hotbed of anti-slavery movement, and Duncanson not only participated in abolitionist activities, he also sold paintings and donated money to the cause.

Duncanson took inspiration from literary classics when he painted – he based his famous painting Land of the Lotus Eaters on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem and presented it to him when he went to study art in Europe.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861
Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine 1871 -inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”

Duncanson was the first truly successful African-American artist, not only in the US but also in Europe.

African-American Art – A Pictorial Essay (1/4)

I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?  

Joshusa Johnson (1763 – after 1826), Earliest Known African-American Artist.

The earliest known African-American artist is antebellum era artist Joshua Johnson who painted in the early 1800s. He lived in Baltimore and advertised himself as a self-taught portrait artist. He may have been biracial and earned his freedom which allowed him to become a financially successful professional artist. He painted local resident – sea captains, merchants, shopkeepers and their families.

Of the about 80 paintings attributed to Johnson only one is signed, and only two are of African-Americans. His portraits are formal mostly with plain backgrounds, though some have tiled floors and windows with distant landscapes. If he included other objects, they were letter, books, gloves, parasols, riding crops dogs, flowers and fruit.

Very little is known about Joshua Johnson – interestingly his paintings are dated because of the ages of the known sitters not because of when he might have painted them. Only two of his paintings were of African-Americans – of Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a biracial African-American who gained his freedom and became a Methodist minister. Coker moved to Sierra Leone with his family and started the West Africa Methodist Church. The second was of an unknown cleric.

(Images courtesy NGA & Smithsonian).

Camille Pissarro – Haussmann’s Gift to Paris

While Haussmann created the City of Lights, Pissarro painted it as it glowed in this light from morning until night, from spring until snow.

Haussmannization of Paris

Paris at the dawn of the 19th Century was a very different city from the one that closed out the century – a medieval, overcrowded, dark city with narrow streets was transformed into an light and airy city that radiated out of the Arc de triomphe with wide boulevards flanked by Chestnut trees and beautiful buildings made of white Lutetian limestone and adorned with carvings and wrought iron balconies. The two people responsible for this transformation were Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the Napoleon) and Georges-Eugene Haussmann.

It was a match made in heaven for these two – they gutted the city with little regard for its present or past residents and displaced 350,000 residents and over 6 million graves. And while people complained endlessly about the endless construction and the endless cost – out of all this finally arose the beautiful City of Lights we know today.

It is to the brilliant Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann that Paris owes much of its beauty. The buildings that line the wide boulevards are called Haussmanns and are one of Paris’s most defining features. Each apartment building was five stories high, with a nonnegotiable uniform exterior façade – its height in proportion to the width of the boulevard. The interiors could vary according to the owner’s preference.

The ground floor had high ceilings and was for retail stores and offices, the first or mezzanine floor had low ceilings and was for storage for the first floor. The most desirable floor was the second floor or the noble floor, which had beautiful windows and wrought iron balconies. The third and fourth floor had smaller balconies and windows. Each building has a uniform 45-degree mansard roof.

Artist Gustave Caillebotte seemed to love the newly transformed Paris as well!!

Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855).

Rene Magritte (1898–1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist who is known for challenging the viewers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.One could wax and wane endlessly about the philosophical underpinnings of his pipe painting, Treachery of Images (1929). Or the way I understand it – Magritte was saying two things here – this is not a pipe since you can’t really stuff some tobacco into it and smoke it as you would a pipe. The second is that it’s not a pipe because it’s an image of a pipe. And really the word pipe can be changed at any time to say for instance pig – in which case – this would still no longer be a pipe. So the word and the image are simply representations of the real thing, and not the real thing.

The Interpretation of Dreams 1935

Words and images are human representations of the real live tangible thing which we can touch and experience. They have names because we gave them these names – there is always a disconnect between the real thing and the way we see and name something – perhaps that’s why the images are also painted through a window.

Key to Dreams 1927 …the sky, the bird, the table, the sponge

The paintings are depictions of the challenges put forth by the influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who clearly saw that the relationship between a thing and its name are totally arbitrary. The word gets its meaning from existing within a context of the system of naming that exists and has existed for centuries. Magritte challenged this same arbitrary relation in these paintings.

The Key To Dreams, 1930 …. the acacia flower, the moon, the snow, the roof, the storm, the desert

So Magritte, Kierkegaard, & de Saussure come together to help us understand and challenege, and find new ways of looking at old things.

Two Great American – and Four Great Freedoms

On January 6, 1941, with an eye towards the London blitz and German air raids, President Franklin Roosevelt gave a powerful speech in which he articulated his vision for a postwar world founded on four basic human freedoms. The speech was to encourage America to end its isolationism policy and join World War II. Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was inspired by these words and visualized these freedoms in his own unique small-town neighborly way.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. “

“The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech, 1943.

“The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Worship, 1943

“The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom From Want, 1943

“The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.”

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943.

Two much loved, admired, and respected Americans – what an enduring legacy they have left for us to reflect upon.