At the threshold

Recently, I had done a series of blogs on the representation of African Americans in art. It seems incomplete without including the sensitive post-Civil War works of Winslow Homer in which he depicts African Americans standing at the threshold between slavery and freedom. Homer (1836-1910) is regarded as one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century.

Near Andersonville, 1875

Andersonville (Camp Sumter) was a brutal civil war camp where 10s of thousands of Union soldiers died. In this poetic painting a woman stands at the threshold  between slavery and freedom – darkness and light.

A Visit from the Mistress, 1876

In A Visit from the Mistress, 1876, the old mistress visits the Afrcan American women who are warmed by the glow of the fireplace, while the old mistress looks cold and angular. The body posture and the rather stiff visit all give a sense on underlying hostility, and a sense that despite the radical shift not much has changed in reality.

The Bright Side, 1865

This painting is the subject of considerable debate as to Homer’s meaning. Whatever the interpretation – the men here are taking a well-deserved break after hard work in the army and exude dignity and a sense of calm.

Weaning the Calf, 1875

What at first glance appears to be an idyllic childhood scene, is in reality a depiction of post-Civil war reality. The young boy in the front, and the one under the tree are doing all the work, while the other two boys look at the action and offer no assistance. Homer’s work here seems to be speaking volumes for the difficult future that lies ahead.

(Images courtesy MFA Boston, NC Museum, Google Arts & Culture).

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).

Two Great Americans – 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.

Florida Highwaymen

In segregated 1950 and 60s, African-American artists were few and far between – they had very little chance of getting a formal art education, and an even lesser chance of being shown in a gallery. It was this very lack of opportunity which gave rise to a unique painting style and an art collective which came to be known as the Florida Highwaymen.

The self-taught Highwaymen worked in the Fort Pierce and Vero Beach regions of Florida and painted the diverse and vibrant ecology of the region in their own distinct style. They painted fiery red sunsets, banyan trees laden with Spanish moss, beaches, marshes, aquamarine waters, stunning palms and poinciana tress, birds in flight– all in dazzling colors, and got their name by selling these works to tourists driving along Florida’s Atlantic Coast.

Harold Newton, Poinciana

The Highwaymen had 26 artists, with the two leaders being Alfred Hair and Harold Newton. They produced large quantities of art which they sold inexpensively to day trippers and tourists. Producing large quantities of art using an assembly line method led to a distinct painting style which included quick impressionistic style brushstrokes. Despite the assembly style method of painting the same subject, the artists added unique details to each work.

In all the Highwaymen made over 200,000 paintings which show an older Florida – the pre-Disney and Universal Florida of citrus groves and farms. At the same time they show the Florida of the Jim Crow era – when a group of defiant and talented artists worked outside the system and found independence and agency through art.

Morse's Kunstkammer

I am always fascinated by paintings that are paintings of a gallery or a viewing room – they are basically a painting of multiple paintings (similar to Rockwell’s Picasso vs. Sargent). Two of the best examples of this genre, called kunstkammer (German for “cabinet of curiosities”) are Modern Rome and Ancient Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 – 1765)

For me the most fascinating kunstkammer painting is Samuel Morse’s (of the telegraph and Morse code fame), Gallery of the Louvre which he painted from 1831 to 1833. Before he connected the two sides of the Atlantic with a telegraphic message, Morse tried to do so with this monumental painting. Morse started his career as a painter and was a well-known portrait artist when he painted this work, primarily for the cultural and artistic education of the American public. Morse and his great friend and author James Fenimore Cooper came up with the idea of this painting to firstly, record the world’s greatest art, and secondly, to introduce young Americans to refined European art.

Samuel Morse’s Gallery in the Louvre 1831-33

The massive 6 by 9 feet painting is of the Salon Caree in the Louvre; its walls Morse lined with some of the world’s most famous art.  In the foreground is Morse himself as he looks at a painting his daughter is working on, and to the back left is Cooper with his wife and daughter.  They are surrounded by brilliant small scale replicas of the works of Leonardo, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Poussin, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Carvaggio among others. 

Morse arranged the paintings as he wished and probably in some order that he liked them, and altered relative sizes to fit his canvas.  We can see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Raphael’s La Belle Jardiniere. At the bottom row of paintings – on either side of Mona Lisa- we see two versions of Christ Carrying the Cross – perhaps Morse wanted to highlight the different ways artists handled the same subject matter.  

What a powerhouse of talent Morse must have been – it’s remarkable, almost incredulous, that his talented artist then went on to invent the single wire telegraph and the Morse Code.