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The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930 - 1946

Introduction

by Patricia Phagan

 

The South's once lucrative agricultural economy, dependent on high cotton prices, had generally declined in the post-Civil War period, and it fell precipitously in the early 1920s with soil depletion, overproduction, and the boll weevil infestation of cotton crops. To improve the economy, the expansionist business climate of the "Roaring Twenties" spawned efforts at attracting new industry, a campaign which had its origins in the late nineteenth-century New South movement. This journalistic undertaking to reshape the region had contributed substantially to the growth of process-oriented businesses, such as timber, textiles, and tobacco, activities which took advantage of the region's low-cost labor and abundant natural resources. Throughout the Great Depression, the New South, with its connotations of an energetic, fast-paced new industrial age, remained a frequent, prominent part of discussions about the region. This hope for the future of the area can be detected especially in popular and scholarly articles discussing the economic and cultural fabric of the land. Words such as "rehabilitation" and "awakening," for example, were often used in describing the economic overhaul and advance of industry into the region.[1]

The South became a prominent and contradictory subject for internal and national discussion in the 1930s and early 1940s. At the beginning of the Depression, the Agrarians, a group of Southern writers and historians associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, taking issue with the pro-industry spirit of the times, stirred debate with their essays in the much-publicized I'll Take My Stand, published in 1930, a controversial book which upheld the legitimacy of the Southern land-based, folk heritage. However, the postbellum South, still largely agricultural with cotton as its major crop, was beset by poverty and poor health conditions in rural areas, problems that were magnified during the Depression. By 1938 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, speaking at a conference sponsored by the National Emergency Council, declared the South the nation's number one economic problem, a refrain found in the popular and academic presses at the time.[2] The New Deal administration of Roosevelt, himself a part-time resident of Warm Springs, Georgia, pumped money into the drought-ridden and impoverished South. His Civilian Conservation Corps, among other agencies, employed Southerners to build recreational projects in the region. The Soil Conservation Service taught farmers the benefits of contour plowing, terracing, crop rotation, and raising cattle for the replenishment of the eroded land. The new Tennessee Valley Authority controlled the devastating flood waters affecting the Mississippi Valley, promoted reforestation of overused land, and established dams for generating electricity. Likewise, the Rural Electrification Administration brought cheap electricity into isolated areas across the South.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA), another New Deal agency, documented social conditions in the "Poverty Belt." The deplorable living situations of almost two million sharecroppers -- strictly speaking, those who rented land and equipment through sharing usually one-half of their harvested crops with the landlord -- and tenant farmers, who rented land by sharing a smaller percentage of crops, came to the fore in the mid-1930s. A major contemporary study documented this land rental system, characterized by a cycle of debt and high credit rates.[3] During the 1930s large numbers of these farmers migrated out of the region, and many were pushed out because farm owners decreased the farming acreage under the Agricultural Adjustment Act which had taken effect two years earlier (but which was declared unconstitutional in 1936). All in all, until the war years, poverty characterized the lives of the remaining tenant farmers and sharecroppers, both black and white. For African Americans, although there was some limited prosperity for them in the South in the first half of the century, life in the region with its prevalent, overt racism remained overwhelmingly harsh, and it and poverty forced millions of blacks to migrate out of the region during that time period, especially after World War I. The movement for desegregation became more active in the 1940s; however, during that decade tremendous difficulties for blacks continued in segregation practices and laws, the poll tax, and race riots. Only with the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II, when the South gained numerous federal defense industries and military bases, would the South's economy begin a dramatic, highly productive transformation.

Fascination and concern for the South during the years of the Depression and early war years produced vivid accounts and projects by photographers, writers, folklorists, film producers, music historians, sociologists, journalists, and others, in addition to the travel articles popularizing the moderate winter climate of much of the area and the popular newspaper and magazine accounts of the tenant system. Segments of the South's culture and its rural communities became prime subjects for social documentation, particularly through the vehicle of photography. There had been earlier attempts at photographic documentation of disadvantaged populations in the South. For example, Lewis Hine at the turn of the century shot photographs of children laboring in Southern textile mills. Rudolf Eickemeyer Jr., from Yonkers, and others, including nurse Mary Morgan Kiepp of Selma, Alabama, took photographs of African-American life on old plantations.[4] In addition, there were many illustrations in popular articles that offered both sober portrayals and exploitative stereotypes of Southern blacks. The former can be seen in the 1920s in social-worker and educational articles in magazines such as Survey Graphic and Christian Century.

Perhaps the most poignant photographic interpretations of the Southern social scene in the early twentieth century, however, are the numerous book projects and government-sponsored black-and-white photographs made during the Great Depression and early war years. For instance, in 1937 You Have Seen Their Faces was published, a widely praised book with text by Erskine Caldwell and photographs by Margaret Bourke-White. Caldwell, a Southern writer who worked for the New York Post and authored the sensational book Tobacco Road, and Bourke-White, an FSA photographer on the staff of Life, collaborated on this book about impoverished farmers, creating a documentary of photographs, captions, and text that expressed a socially conscious perspective. In 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men appeared, based upon a never-published article assigned to James Agee in 1936 by Fortune magazine. The project took as its subject the lives of three tenant families in Alabama, with stark photographs by the FSA photographer Walker Evans and direct, eloquent, and personal prose by the Southern writer Agee. The FSA itself assigned photographers to document living conditions in poverty-ridden areas across the country. For example, Dorothea Lange in her travels to the vicinity of Chesnee, South Carolina, in July 1937 shot a photograph (Fig. 1) of the "grandmother of a sharecropper," as Lange described the scene. Marion Post Wolcott, another government photographer, in 1940 shot "Negro men and women working in a field" (Fig. 2), as noted by the photographer, at Bayou Bourbeaux Plantation, Natchitoches, Louisiana. These government-sponsored photographs were complemented by photojournalistic spreads on Southern lifestyles and on personalities, in popular magazines such as Fortune and Life, often taken by the same artists who were employed by the FSA.

This prolonged drive among photographers, writers, and government administrators to document these engrossing but often disturbing visual aspects of the South rose from an efflorescence of the documentary tradition that stretched across cultural fields and state boundaries in the Depression and took hold in the areas of painting and printmaking across the country. An infectious enthusiasm among painters and printmakers to picture the South, especially its community- and people-related aspects, opened up the region to the national phenomenon called the American Scene, popularized by the localized and agrarian paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. Just as Regionalism turned particular focus on the Midwest with its rolling, planted hills and traditional social customs, Benton and Curry, with numerous other artists, interpreted the physical and social environments of the South.

American Scene artists who pictured the South built upon a history of landscape, cityscape, and genre art of Southern subjects that extended back at least to the first half of the nineteenth century, beginning with picturesque views by Joshua Shaw and other English-trained painters; city and country scenes by artists centered in Charleston; views by several artists of cities, historic places, and natural wonders throughout the region; and narrative scenes of local, daily life that appear to have become more ambitious toward mid-century. For example, Eastman Johnson's well-known painting of 1859, My Old Kentucky Home -- Life in the South (New York Historical Society, Robert L. Stuart Collection), presents a composite of picturesque vignettes of African Americans at leisure at the rear of a worn, delapidated house, and the canvas is clothed in a warm European aura of ruins and finely-rendered, classically-posed figures.

In another example of genre painting, Winslow Homer's sensitive portrayal of a young black boy, in the watercolor Taking Sunflower to Teacher (Fig. 3) from 1875, like the Eastman oil, departs from the overt caricature of African Americans fluent in pictorial images of these years, especially in illustrated sheet music. The watercolor, with its dramatic background of watery pools and swathes of green, indicates the growing tendency of American artists after mid-century to paint with brighter palettes and looser brushwork and to emphasize the effects of light and atmospheric conditions and a manipulative use of materials. With the absorption of nineteenth-century European art styles and subject matter, especially those of the Barbizon School and Impressionism, American artists painting the Southern landscape at the turn of the century, such as Elliott Daingerfield in Sunset Glory (Fig. 4), clothed their works in these more evanescent effects.

In printmaking, many artists depicting the South also looked to the Etching Revival movement of mid and late nineteenth-century Europe, a broadly influential renaissance of original printmaking inspired by renewed interest in the etchings of Rembrandt, and exemplified in the prints of Charles Meryon, Jean-François Millet, and James Abbott McNiell Whistler. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Etching Revival had many adherents in the South, including Anne Goldthwaite of Alabama and New York, whose etched scenes of Montgomery are especially indebted to the airy renderings of Whistler's portraiture and views of Venice. Many artists in Charleston participated in the Charleston Etchers Club, in response to the revival of interest in original prints. Alfred Hutty, for instance, in the drypoint Avenue of Oaks (Fig. 5), executed in the 1920s, scratched into the surface of a plate a composition of imposing, ancient oak trees lining a road in the Low Country of South Carolina. In romantic etchings such as Hutty's, artists responded to the overwhelming Etching Revival aesthetic of lovingly executed, descriptive line and to the movement's frequent themes of memorable Old World architecture evocative of a distant, untroubled time. At the same moment that Goldthwaite, Hutty, and others were creating their European-influenced etchings, however, there were the beginnings of another movement in the United States that veered away from obvious European connections to style or subject.

This American Scene movement, with its easily understood, vital approaches and distinctive, local subjects, began appearing in the late 'teens and in the 1920s most prominently in works by Charles Burchfield, Thomas Hart Benton, and Edward Hopper. All three had ventured into the Southern region early in their careers. During 1918 and early 1919, while stationed in the Army at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, Burchfield made lively watercolors of the camp and of cabins and stores in nearby African-American communities. In the 1920s through early 1940s Benton made several trips into the South, in consequence of his persistent drive to travel during these years and record the physical world untouched by industrialism, "places where my grandfathers and great grandfathers had come from," he wrote in 1942, in reference to his Southern heritage.[5] His Cotton Pickers, Georgia (see Fig. 1, p. 3) is one of the best-known early American Scene paintings of the South. The composition derived in part from documentary sketches Benton made in middle Georgia in 1928 while on a trip from Pennsylvania to New Mexico in preparation for his painting series The American Historical Epic. Over one hundred drawings and watercolors based on this trip were subsequently shown from October 14 to November 15, 1929, at Delphic Studios in New York. In a much praised exhibition entitled The South, these works were divided into four groups arranged as "King Cotton" (scenes from Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana), "The Lumber Camp" (scenes of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky), "Holy Roller Camp Meetings" (representing the Cumberland Mountains), and "Coal Mines" (scenes in West Virginia).[6] On a trip to Charleston in April and May of 1929 Hopper made many drawings and watercolors, including a windswept view of the Battery (Fig. 6), where artillery still stands and where Fort Sumter can be viewed in the distance.

In the following decade these roots of the American Scene developed into a nation-wide, popular aesthetic among painters and printmakers. The spirit of nationalism and anti-modernism that emerged in American art in the early 1930s gave way in the decade to an intense questioning among artists and art critics for an art that could be called truly American. Matthew Baigell has written in this volume an overview of the American Scene as it is most popularly understood, that is, through looking at works by its three leaders -- Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. But, as one sees by examining the contemporary literature, especially articles and exhibition reviews, in the 1930s and far less frequently in the early 1940s, the American Scene infiltrated and informed mainstream art nationally. As the dominant way of making art in the 1930s, the American Scene, as its name implies, pervaded the different regions of the U.S. It ebbed in the war years with the rising movements of abstraction and more personal forms of expression; however, in terms of artists working with Southern subjects, the movement lingered, as seen in the present exhibition in Nell Choate Jones's ebullient Georgia Red Clay and Mildred Nungester Wolfe's pensive Old Canton Road, both of 1946, the latter suggesting the desolate mood of much American art of the time. Even in 1941, at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II, Art Digest reported enthusiastically on the "new vigor and life" seen in the latest Southern States Art League exhibition, singling out American Scene painter John McCrady as the winner of the Benjamin Award for the "most appealing interpretation of a Southern subject" in his painting Sic Transit.[7]

Art Digest, champion of the American Scene, featured national calendars of exhibitions which listed sites in Southern cities, especially Atlanta, Birmingham, Charleston, Chattanooga, Jackson, Louisville, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, New Orleans, and Savannah. Exhibitions of individual American Scene artists, such as Lamar Dodd or Kelly Fitzpatrick, were listed as well as group shows of the growing number of Southern art associations and clubs. The establishment of a number of artist initiatives such as the Dixie Art Colony and New South in Alabama as well as the New Southern Group in New Orleans suggest organized efforts to foster awareness and support of contemporary art. There appeared notices and articles on exhibitions organized by professional artists' groups such as the Southern States Art League, an organization founded to foster the arts in the region and to give artists exhibition opportunities. Exhibitions in New York that featured Southern subjects, such as McCrady's show at the Boyer Galleries in October 1937,[8] were often reviewed in the magazine. The annual National Exhibition of American Art, a project begun in 1936 and sponsored by the Municipal Art Committee, presented to New Yorkers an overview of art in the rest of the country, state by state, selected by state committees. In 1938, for example, paintings by McCrady, Dodd, and Karl Wolfe were singled out for praise by reviewers, as reported in the magazine.[9] In the spirit of the times, the large exhibition of works by American artists at the New York World's Fair in 1939, Democracy in Art, sought to include all styles of contemporary art, and the works were selected by regional committees, including one for the Southeast. Art Digest also regularly listed mural and sculpture projects completed throughout all the states for the U.S. Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. Consolidated regional exhibitions would continue in the later Pepsi-Cola-sponsored shows of paintings from across the country, juried by regional screening committees and a national selection committee. The American Magazine of Art, published by the American Federation of Arts, would also occasionally report on news from the South; however, Art Digest was by far the most generous in its reportage of the region.

It is not surprising that there are many similarities in training between American Scene artists working with Southern imagery -- both those who lived there and those who visited for a short while -- for the movement was pervasive. For instance, most Southern artists in this exhibition had to travel outside the region to attain training in art, and they and other artists in this exhibition studied at schools in the North or Midwest, such as the Art Students League, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, or with artists who had been based in these regions. The Art Students League connection is especially strong among artists represented in the exhibition. For example, Howard Cook, Adolf Dehn, Marie Hull, and Andrée Ruellan studied at the League during the period from the late 'teens to the early 1920s, whereas McCrady, Dodd, Aaron Bohrod, James Fowler Cooper, and Prentiss Taylor studied at the League during the years from the late 1920s to the early 1930s.

At the Art Students League in New York, the Ashcan School tradition of depicting everyday urban life had a strong presence, and the progressive school on 57th Street became a training ground for artists in the American Scene. The League, founded in 1875, offered courses that allowed students greater freedom than the academically rigorous course of study at its New York competitor, the National Academy of Design. At the League there were no entrance requirements and no tests, and students were free to study with whomever they wished. John Sloan, the Ashcan School illustrator, printmaker, and painter, taught at the League from 1916 until the 1930s, and his colleague, realist painter George Luks, often taught and gave talks at the school. Both of them inspired students to go out and, in the Ashcan tradition, sketch their immediate impressions of life in the New York City streets. Kenneth Hayes Miller, the leader of the Fourteenth Street School, was an inspiring teacher who taught off and on at the League from 1911 to 1951. He has become most well-known for his paintings of shoppers (Fig. 7), which have come to symbolize the urban "between the wars" period in New York City, and for his teaching of a number of realists in New York, including Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop. Miller taught several artists represented in this exhibition, including Dehn, Bohrod, McCrady, and Lamar Baker. McCrady's compositions and his practice of underpainting and glazing, which create a shimmering quality in the paint, are indebted to Miller's teachings on the Old Masters. Curry, a teacher at the League from 1932 to 1936, taught Lamar Dodd on the latter's second tour of study at the League. Curry had taken life drawing classes at the school only a few years before, in 1928. The Midwesterner's grounding in the study of the figure and the importance of life drawing classes at the League appear to have profoundly affected Dodd's numerous sketches and drawings of the figure during his student days.[10] Finally, the iconoclastic and charismatic Benton taught at the League from 1926 to 1934, a period when he first traveled to the South and when he gained increasing coverage for his Southern works through exhibition reviews and museum acquisitions. For instance, in 1933 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Benton's Cotton Pickers, Georgia, with monies from the George A. Hearn Fund. Benton's seeming, unofficial championing of the South must have been a powerful stimulus for native Southerners at the League who saw in his Southern scenes a stimulus ripe for response. Of the artists in this exhibition, Benton's students included McCrady, a student of his in 1933.

Regarding subject matter, American Scene artists in the South share with the Midwestern American Scene painters the theme of farming. Benton not only painted and made prints of Midwestern farms, but he also depicted Southern farms, especially from the late 1920s to the 1940s. A sense of activity overwhelms the figures and landscapes in this Missouri artist's farm scenes. Whether of the Midwest or the South, his pictures of farmers going to market, threshing wheat, haying, and picking cotton, emphasize productive activity. Likewise, Curry, who depicted farm life in the expansive plains of rural Kansas and the Midwest, presented farms and farmers resilient to the untamable weather of the region and aware of not only the greater powers in nature but in social life as well. Fierce thunderstorms, a bountiful harvest, the wrath of the Mississippi River, and an African-American fugitive hiding among the trees are among Curry's subjects that suggest natural and societal structures greater than the individual. Wood, from the neighboring state of Iowa, painted images of sturdy pioneer stock and idyllic, rolling countryside dotted with haystacks or cows, globular trees, and well-tended farms where rows and rows of crops form fields of patterns like the designs on a calico dress and country roads form trails as smooth as ribbon.

The Midwestern landscapes of Benton, Curry, and Wood are often embedded in a mythological atmosphere of self-absorbed, hard-working farmers harvesting rich, bountiful crops. Many American Scene artists in the South also depicted enthusiastic scenes of hardy, often "larger-than-life" workers, but, rather than threshing wheat, they are shearing sheep, picking cotton, or sowing rice, for example. Emphasis in these Southern scenes, however, is not so much on a rewarding consequence as it is on the element of work itself. Here we see the labor it took to handle the sheep, the many people it took to pick the cotton, or the effort of broadcasting rice seed. The figures in Marie Hull's portrait of Sharecroppers (Fig. 8) embody the signs of daily struggle these Southern farmers endured. These scenes of work and heroic workers contrast, however, with a number of views of desolate farms and farmers found in many American Scene pictures of the South. Crawford Gillis, for example, painted an arid cotton field being chopped by farmers. Mildred Nungester Wolfe pictured an unused tract of land near her home in Jackson, Mississippi. The black artists Wilmer Jennings and Charles Alston made prints of deserted Southern farms, while Raymond Steth, also an African American, created lithographs depicting desperate Southern black farmers. Less often, American Scene artists picturing the South executed farm scenes where workers carry on regular chores in a more matter-of-fact way. William H. Johnson, for instance, produced a screenprint of an unemotional, stoic couple sowing a field, whereas Robert Gwathmey painted a scene of black farmers quietly hoeing tobacco. Even less often, it seems, did American Scene artists produce farm scenes showing more positive episodes of Southern farm life. There are few scenes in this exhibition such as Steth's view of a pleasant Southern barbecue.

Whereas farming is a major subject in American Scene works of the South, one can also find some attention directed toward industry, particularly in works stemming from interest in the pictorial qualities of the architecture of the Birmingham iron and steel industries. Picturing the smokestacks and abstractly shaped, metal forms of industrial mills was part of the vocabulary of the American Scene in the industrial regions of the United States, such as the Northeast and upper Midwest. The steel mills of Harry Sternberg and smelting plants of Albert Abramovitz, examples of prints made in the Federal Art Project's Graphic Arts Division in New York City, for example, stem in part from the movement among Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Louis Lozowick, and other Precisionist artists in the 1920s to create a modernist art based on the observation of American industrial and urban architecture.

A few artists in Birmingham during the mid-1930s were similarly drawn to imposing industrial complexes. Richard Coe, a WPA artist working in the city, made a series of etchings in 1934 and 1935 of idle and active iron blast furnaces in and around Birmingham. An area that underwent an ore miners' strike in the summer of 1934, the Birmingham District suffered limited industrial production during the 1930s. Steel mills remained open but productivity plummeted to around half their capacity and blast furnaces and ore mines operated sporadically.[11] Howard Cook, a Northern artist traveling through Birmingham in 1934 as part of a Guggenheim-sponsored trip, made pastel and conté crayon drawings of the huge industrial mills of the city. Lamar Dodd, living in Birmingham in the mid-1930s, was also drawn to the industrial architecture in and around Birmingham. Dodd's fascination with the shapes and forms of industry can also be seen in his paintings of nearby sites and in Copperhill, Tennessee. A snapshot from c. 1936 - 1937 (Fig. 9) of railroad tracks, trains, a slag dump, and a mill, all sliced through with a band of telephone poles, attests to his passion for finding design, form, and tension in the local landscape. His painting, Copperhill (Fig. 10), a canvas presenting the abrupt, gouged face of a copper mine just over the Georgia border, is perhaps his most eloquent expression of interest in the design of the industrial landscape during these years.

The red soil and hills of the Piedmont sections and the low-lying coastal regions of the Southeastern states are, like the wheat fields of the Midwest and the plentiful steel mills of the North, distinctive to American Scene paintings of the South. Nell Choate Jones in Georgia Red Clay, for instance, compresses homesteads, towering trees, and a serpentine dirt road with bold outlines and deep, romantic reds. Alfred Hutty, in Deep South, offers a farm couple walking with implements up a road shaded by gnarled, moss-hung oak trees. Aaron Bohrod in New Orleans and Adolf Dehn in Key West both conceived active street scenes displaying distinctive local houses and palm trees.

Like many American Scene artists across the nation, several American Scene artists picturing the South were inspired by the popular social paintings and prints of the Mexican muralists of the 1920s. Works by José Clemente Orozco particularly stimulated Crawford Gillis of Alabama, for example. During the early years of the Great Depression, Orozco created a series of much-publicized murals in the United States, at Pomona College in Claremont, California, the New School for Social Research in New York, and Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In the late 1920s and early 1930s his work was represented in the U.S. by Delphic Studios in New York which in 1930 circulated an exhibition of his drawings and lithographs. A contemporary reviewer who saw the exhibition in Denver described Orozco's series of wash drawings, "Mexico in Revolution," as scenes of horror but masterfully executed in black and white.[12] By November 1930 Art Digest, in its calendar, posted notice that his paintings, mural studies, and lithographs were on permanent display in the gallery.[13] In 1935 Gillis and John Lapsley, art students in New York who had an interest in the work of the Mexican artist, went to see an exhibition of his lithographs at Delphic Studios. The young Alabama artists had both traveled to New York in September 1935, Gillis staying only for six months, through the winter. He would have his first one-person exhibition of oils and watercolors at the Delphic Studios in 1938. After his New York sojourn, Gillis fostered an intensity in his canvases geared toward placing workers in a heroic light. Social criticism, which was "in the air" then,[14] became an impetus in several paintings, such as Chopping Cotton with its desolate landscape of tenant farmers. Gillis's painting of determined workers, carrying hoes and wearing simple clothing and hats, particularly sombreros, recall lithographs by Orozco of armed Mexican workers and their families (Fig. 11). Several Southern artists in the exhibition also had ties with Diego Rivera. For example, in the summer of 1939 Lapsley traveled to Mexico and met Rivera and David Siqueiros. Hale Woodruff, professor of art at Atlanta University, traveled to Mexico in the mid-1930s to study mural painting with Rivera. The New Orleans satirist Caroline Durieux became friends with Rivera on her stay in Mexico during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The American Scene movement in the South, however, is perhaps most distinctive for its prominent treatment of African Americans. As in documentary photographs by Marion Post Wolcott and other FSA photographers surveying the South (Fig. 12), the lives and culture of Southern blacks became overwhelming themes in American Scene paintings, drawings, and prints by both natives and visitors to the region. Blacks in these works appear frequently in rural, city, and religious settings, and males especially are often presented as persecuted, incarcerated, or attacked. For the African American the rural land promised varied degrees of sustenance as well as nighttime refuge. Its regularity and quiet moods projected in scenes of picking and chopping cotton, sowing rice and seed, and hoeing tobacco differ profoundly from the erratic and turmoil suggested in views of hunted black men. The segregated city and town, with their offerings of a broader culture, enticed country folk with more opportunities for employment, though jobs were sometimes scarce and monotonous. Religion and participation in the church invited immersion into a spiritual inner life and gave one access to an organizational system that galvanized African-American communities.

The most unsettling of the images of blacks, however, are those that present them threatened or killed by mobs. The recurring themes of African Americans hiding from white suprematicists and becoming their victims indicate the American artist's increasing outspokenness and participation in organized efforts for social justice in the 1930s. The number of lynchings of blacks and whites rose dramatically after the Civil War with the majority occurring to African Americans in the South; these crimes began to decline only with the early years of the twentieth century. In 1930, however, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama recorded twenty-one lynchings, in 1933 twenty-eight, and beginning in 1936 less than ten were recorded annually by the Institute.[l5] In the 1930s many artists, sympathetic to the plight of blacks in the U.S., particularly Southern blacks, created emotional works on the theme of antilynching. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a long-time fighter of racially-motivated crimes, presented an exhibition in 1935 in New York on the theme. The movement in American leftist politics for an antilynching campaign was at its most visible in 1935, and the John Reed Club and other groups competed with a rival exhibition that opened on the last day of the NAACP exhibition.[16] Of artists in The American Scene and the South, Benton, Curry, Orozco, George Biddle, Paul Cadmus, Hale Woodruff, Wilmer Jennings, and Prentiss Taylor contributed works to the NAACP exhibition, while Orozco, William Gropper, Louis Lozowick, and Philip Evergood participated in the John Reed Club show. Of other artists, a few years later Southerners Lamar Baker and Charles Shannon would also create works opposing lynching. During the second half of the 1930s, Shannon lived alone in a small cabin in Butler County, Alabama, wrestling with paintings and drawings based on the lives of his African-American neighbors. In 1939, he painted Ku Klux Klan, a work depicting a family in a red ditch hiding from hooded Klansmen. Shannon would destroy the painting, however, because he "was afraid of being caught with it."[17] Only the study survives.

The antilynching theme is the most emotional and poignant element in these works of the South from the 1930s and 1940s. A place and period that bring to mind various issues -- eroded land and tenant farming, natural resources and new industry, African-American culture and visible, often life-threatening prejudice -- the South during this time also became the basis for a body of works by American artists. These paintings, prints, and drawings represent a region and culture that is less identified with the American Scene than the Midwest, especially. Here begins the present-day dialogue with the American Scene and the South.

 

ENDNOTES

 

1 See, for instance, R. D. W. Connor, "Rehabilitation of a Rural Commonwealth," American Historical Review 36 (October 1930): 44 - 62; and A. Dell, "Awakening of the Southern States," Contemporary Review 136 (October 1929): 483 - 488.
 
2 See "Economic Problem Number One," Commonwealth 28 (19 August 1938): 417; "Economic Problem Number One," Current History 49 (October 1938): 41 - 44, 49 - 51; and "No. 1 Economic Problem," Nation, 23 July 1938, 81.
 
3 See H. Ward, "Poverty Belt," New Republic, 2 October 1935, 212 - 213. The summary of extensive field reports on cotton tenancy in the mid-1930s is Charles S. Johnson, Edwin R. Embree, and W. W. Alexander, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1935). During the 1930s and 1940s the terms sharecropper and tenant farmer were often used interchangeably in the popular press. In the present study, tenant farmer is used as a general term to denote the impoverished farmer.
 
4 Keipp's sensitive photographs of the Keipp plantation in Old Selma are in the collection of the Selma-Dallas County Museum of History and Archives (The Old Depot Museum).
 
5 Quoted from Thomas Hart Benton, ''A Note by the Illustrator," in Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Companion), ed. and with an intro. by Bernard DeVoto (New York: Limited Editions Club, 1942), lxxv, cited in Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton: Drawing from Life, exhib. cat. (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington; New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1990, 99.
 
6 See Adams, Drawing from Life, 110 - 119, for Benton's 1928 trip through the South. For discussion on his exhibition at Delphic Studios, see idem, Thomas Hart Benton: An American Original (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 151.
 
7 "McCrady Tops Southern League Show," Art Digest, 1 May 1941, 13.
 
8 "Loneliness Stirred His Brush to Activity," Art Digest, 15 October 1937, 15.
 
9 See "New York Reviews the Nation's Art," Art Digest, 1 July 1938, 5.
 
10 The present author is writing a book on Lamar Dodd's sketchbook drawings, from his early student days to the present. Dodd's sketchbooks are in the possession of the artist, Athens, Georgia.
 
11 See Marjorie Longenecker White, The Birmingham District; An Industrial History and Guide (Birmingham: Birmingham Historical Society, The First National Bank of Birmingham, and the Junior League of Birmingham, 1981), 65 - 66.
 
12 Arnold Ronnebeck, art critic for the Rocky Mountain News, was quoted in "An Orozco Tribute," Art Digest, September 1930, 13.
 
13 "Great Calendar of U.S. and Canadian Exhibitions," Art Digest, 15 November 1930, 30.
 
14 Crawford Gillis, interview by author, 27 August 1994, Selma, Alabama, notes in the author's file on Gillis, Georgia Museum of Art.
 
15 See Marlene Park, "Lynching and Antilynching: Art and Politics in the 1930s," Prospects 18 (1993): 312.
 
16 The exhibition sponsored by the NAACP, An Art Commentary on Lynching, was held from February 15 to March 2, 1935, at the Arthur U. Newton Galleries in New York; the rival exhibition, The Struggle for Negro Rights, opened on March 2, 1935, at the ACA Gallery in New York. See Park, 328, 338.
 
17 Charles Shannon, notes to the author in a notebook, "Early Works, pre/WWII," compiled by the artist, in the author's file on Charles Shannon, Georgia Museum of Art.

 

FOR FURTHER READING

 
Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s - 40s by African-American Artists; From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams. Exhib. cat. n.p., n.d.
 
Matthew Baigell. The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930s. New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1974.
 
Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists; From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
 
Sue Bridwell Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture; A Gentle Reconstruction. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
 
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About the author:

Patricia E. Phagan is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (formerly the Vassar College Art Gallery) at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2000, the same year she came to Vassar, she received her Ph.D. in art history from the City University of New York with a dissertation on William Gropper and his political cartoons. From 1987 to 1999 she was the curator of prints and drawings at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. She is a member of Print Council of America, a recipient of a Luce Dissertation Fellowship in American Art, and editor and author of numerous exhibition catalogues, including Adriaen van Ostade: Etchings of Peasant Life in Holland's Golden Age; The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930 - 1946; Hudson River School Drawings from Dia Art Foundation; and Made in Woodstock: Printmaking from 1903 to 1945.

 

Resource Library editor's note:


The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 2, 2008, with permission of the author and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, which was granted to TFAO on February 28 and March 3, 2008. Dr. Phagan's essay is the introduction to the exhibition catalogue The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930 - 1946, which she also edited. The catalogue was published by the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. . The exhibition of the same name, organized by Dr. Phagan, was on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia (July 13 - September 8, 1996); Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama (February 7 - April 6, 1997); Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida (May 17 - July 13, 1997); and the Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia (September 14 - November 9, 1997).

An adaptation of this essay was published in the September - October 1997 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author; Hillary Brown of the Georgia Museum of Art; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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