Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2009 with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601 or through either this phone number or web address:


Southern Scene

by Martha R. Severens


The South has a way of leaving an indelible imprint on all who spend any significant amount of time within its bounds. From native sons who flee its social and economic confines to travelers who are drawn to its beauty and history, scores of artists divulge the South's symbols and stories through their work, sometimes presenting a warm, flattering view, sometimes laying bare its transgressions in the cold light of day. And while the South of the twenty-first century is becoming less and less a place apart, the South of the mid-twentieth century inspired heterogeneous works that portray a region of contrasts and contradictions, culture and coarseness.

Since 1985, the Greenville County Museum of Art has been building its Southern Collection into a nationally recognized resource surveying American art through Southern-related examples. Currently, the Museum is showcasing a thematic selection drawn from the collection. Entitled Southern Scene, this exhibition comprises fifty paintings and sculptures that demonstrate the rich diversity of art produced in this country from the late 1920s into the 1950s.

Not all the artists in the exhibition are Southerners, nor are all its subjects Southern. In some instances, Northern artists made road trips south, attracted by the region's climate, landscape, and "local color." Others undertook commissions sponsored by the New Deal or accepted teaching positions at area colleges.

Conversely, many of the South's native artists headed north, largely drawn by educational opportunities at such august institutions as the National Academy of Design or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Pining for their Southern birthplaces, they frequently evoked the region through images tinged with nostalgia.

Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton, the two best-known artists of the period, each visited the South in the late 1920s. Hopper's Southern sojourn was spontaneous. Restless during the spring of 1929, Hopper and his wife Jo Nivison, also a painter, headed for Charleston, South Carolina, possibly motivated by Hopper's interest in Civil War history.

Hopper completed eleven watercolors while in Charleston, including one of the cannons on the historic battery, several Victorian houses, and one church interior, the Museum's Baptistry of St. John's, a sharply angled view of Charleston's historic Lutheran church. Although unique in his oeuvre -- Hopper hated going to church -- the watercolor has much in common stylistically with his other paintings: a moody loneliness with high contrasts of lights and darks.

Unlike Hopper, Benton made an extensive sketching trip through the South in preparation for a series of murals. Also in contrast to Hopper, who focused on the built environment, Benton was fascinated by the everyday activities and pastimes of ordinary people. After watching a Mississippi steamboat unloading cotton, he became enthralled by a dice game being played among African-American dockworkers, and in Crap Shooters, vividly recreates the gamblers' quick movements in the animated contours of his figures.

Asked by a Southerner to define what distinguished the region, Benton speculated that it was the presence of African Americans. He explained: "In your childhood they taught you the language by which you express yourself, they made your songs, your jokes, and all else that will stand in your civilization as unique and characterful.... They are responsible for the tradition of the 'good life' which you have, for without them to do your work you could not have had life. Nearly everything you have can be traced to their influence except your architecture, and that is borrowed."[1]

In the eyes of residents and visitors alike, the African-American population set the region apart. Though the country's black population numbered thirteen million in 1940, three-quarters lived in the South. Art from the period reflects this reality, often employing stereotypical images that mirror the segregationist attitudes of the time. In addition, because the region was still dominated by agriculture, many of the paintings feature agrarian subjects.

For example, two well-known African-American artists, William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence, often depicted the farmer in his field. Though Lawrence himself grew up in Harlem, he identified with the plight of Southern black farm laborers. In The Plowman, painted while he was visiting family in Virginia, the lone, small plowman struggles against tremendous odds, his mules straining against the angles of hilly fields. Lawrence dramatically exaggerated the chain linking the farmer to his mule, suggesting the daunting and dehumanizing life of the sharecropper and alluding metaphorically to the struggles of mankind.

Johnson, on the other hand, was part of the northward exodus of poor blacks, leaving his Florence, South Carolina, home for New York while still in his teens. There, he studied with Charles Hawthorne and worked as a studio assistant for George Luks, and with their encouragement, went abroad. For almost ten years, he painted in France and Denmark, creating works that reveal the influence of Chaim Soutine, Vincent van Gogh, and Edvard Munch. By the time he returned to Harlem in 1938, Johnson was discovering his own artistic identity, forging a unique style that fused the rhythms of the Jazz Age with the simple geometries of African tribal art.

Strong ties to rural Georgia distinguish two of the period's women artists, Wenonah Bell and Nell Choate Jones. Even after moving north to pursue art careers, each returned to her past as a source of inspiration. Like Lawrence and Johnson, Bell frequently painted farm scenes, but while Johnson's works stressed drudgery, Bell painted warm, colorful scenes reminiscent of Paul Gauguin. Jones, using more somber colors, painted African Americans at work and at leisure. Her Church Supper is a scene alive with activity and the genuine sense of community she felt in her native South. Late in her very long life, Jones returned to her birthplace, where she told a reporter, "I have been wanting to come back to Georgia. I was born here. I'm a Southerner and that's all there is to that."[2]

The Museum's Southern Scene also encompasses art representing the Depression era. Advised for health reasons to seek a warmer climate, Frederick S. Wight spent two winters in Augusta, Georgia, a city dominated by the textile industry, where he painted mill workers and other local individuals who were largely the descendants of early Scotch-Irish settlers. While in Augusta, he wrote a novel describing "not only a crushing universal poverty, but a desolateness that looked out from another time."[3] Wight captures his subjects' hopeless position, yet conveys the stoic determination with which they faced their plight.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, many federal courthouses and post offices were granted commissions to decorate their public spaces by a provision of the Section of Fine Arts, an agency of the Treasury Department. Approximately three hundred of these projects -- one quarter of the total -- were designated for the South.[4]

Artists were selected and awarded commissions by a committee in Washington and were encouraged to work with the local community to develop the themes to be rendered; however, many artists were unable to afford to visit their sites beforehand, preferring instead to supervise the installation of their work once it was finished.

Two recent Jewish immigrants living in the North, Stefan Hirsch and Simkha Simkhovitch, were chosen to paint murals for federal buildings in the South. Each submitted proposals that, for a variety of reasons, were significantly revised. And once completed, both commissions were accompanied by controversy.

Hirsch's initial design for the Aiken, South Carolina, courthouse was Justice and Protection, a dramatic portrayal of a black man about to become the victim of a lynch mob being protected by the National Guard. By the time the mural was installed this contentious scene had been omitted, but controversy continued nonetheless. The presiding judge, who had no prior knowledge of the commission, deemed it an extravagance. He -- and others -- also objected to the barefoot figure of Justice, who appeared to be a mulatto, as well as to Hirsch's modernistic rendering of figures and space.

In Simkhovitch's study for the Jackson, Mississippi, courthouse mural, he shows three distinct panels illustrating youth/motherhood, work, and old age. The finished mural is quite different. The wheelchair, assumed to be a reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's infirmity, was censored, and the artist's depiction of racial harmony, unusual for the period, was altered. The final painting regresses to traditional Southern stereotypes: a white man dispensing justice, a white overseer weighing cotton, and African Americans working in the fields. In response to later objections by civil rights advocates, the mural is now hidden under a curtain while court is in session.

For Southerners, both black and white, religion provided a degree of solace and hope during the Depression. Seymour Fogel, another recent immigrant, hitchhiked through the South, capturing compelling images of Appalachian poverty and religious rituals, such as his animated, although starkly presented, image of a river baptism.

Religious subjects are deeply rooted in Southern traditions, and for John McCrady, the son of an Episcopal minister, memories of church gatherings and spirituals from his Mississippi childhood fired his imagination. Heaven Bound, his pictorial translation of a religious pageant that combined music, drama, and verse, portrays Satan tempting a newly released soul with jewels, liquor, and other earthly delights. McCrady captures the climactic moment when the soul, in the form of a nude woman, turns from the devil and chooses salvation, symbolized by the hand of God. Behind the scene a subplot unfolds depicting the woman's death, while to the right, paralleling the hand of God in both shape and direction, lightning foretells the justice that surely will follow.

Pageantry of a more arcane variety is the subject of Xavier Gonzalez's ominous painting, Feast of Fools. Living in New Orleans during World War II, Gonzalez incorporated Mardi-Gras-like motifs to create a modern allegory.

Literally, the masked revelers in the background refer to the medieval "feast of fools," a carnival held before the beginning of Lent. Figuratively, the scene might allude to the deprivation of war, a theme further developed through the use of a crow as a symbol of Adolph Hitler, shafts of wheat suggesting fascism, and the silhouette at the far right as the specter of death. The partially nude figures in the foreground are harder to decipher, but may signify the individual victims of war.

Rather than using the city's culture as a point of departure, like Gonzalez, William Halsey chose the streetscape of his native Charleston as the subject of Night Houses. In stark contrast to the previous generation -- the Charleston Renaissance artists -- Halsey did not celebrate the city's picturesque charms. Instead, influenced by modernism, Halsey reduced the vernacular houses to flat, angular, abstract shapes that are no less haunting than Gonzalez's New Orleans nightmare.

The slightly surrealist strain emerging in Gonzalez's and Halsey's paintings is fully realized in Werner Groshans' potent and chilling Southern Landscape II, painted after an extended trip through the South. He used sharp definition and spatial clarity to complement the overt symbols in his landscape. Groshans commented, "To see a hanging skull and an impending storm would be startling anywhere, but in the South it had a special impact on me."[5]

Because Groshans' painting dates to the 1960s, it falls well outside the standard chronological parameters of the American Scene movement. But like Benton and Hopper before him, Groshans understood that the South possesses certain timeless idiosyncrasies that often set it at odds with other areas of the country. The Greenville County Museum of Art's Southern Scene exhibition emphasizes and explores these variations, as the nation stands on the brink of a new era of cultural homogenization.


1 Benton, An Artist in America (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983), p. 315.

2 Jones, quoted by Martha R. Severens, "Nell Choate Jones," Eight Southern Women (Greenville: Greenville County Museum of Art, 1986), p. 18.

3 Frederick S. Wight, South (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1935), p. 8.

4 See Sue Bridwell Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture: A Gentle Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), p. 3.

5 Groshans, artist's statement, files, Greenville County Museum of Art.


About the author

Martha Severens has been curator at Greenville County Museum of Art for over 15 years. She has also been curator at the Portland Museum of Art (Maine) and Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, South Carolina). She holds a bachelor's degree from Wells College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, The Charleston Renaissance, and William Halsey. She has also written about David Hare, Alice Smith, and Andrew Wyeth.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 28, 2009, with permission of the author and the Greenville County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on February 10, 2009.

This article appeared in the January - February 2001 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition, Southern Scene at the Greenville County Museum of Art that was on view at that museum in the spring of 2001.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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