Past Exhibits: African Americans in Southern Art

December 18, 2003 - March 28, 2004

Black Granny and Child, Augustus G. Heaton (1844-1930), Oil on Canvas, c. 1882

Artist's Perceptions of Blacks in Southern Society 1850-1950

A special exhibit of images of African Americans painted by southern artists will be exhibited from December 18, 2003 until March 4, 2004. This exhibit demonstrates the interest among southern painters in documenting black folk customs and the evolutionary progress these depictions made during a one-hundred-year span.

From the 1850's through World War II, paintings by artists working in the South mirrored images fashioned throughout America. These paintings were different from those created in other parts of the country in that they reflected the Southern sense of place and intimacy of black and white relationships in the region.

From the mid-nineteenth century through Reconstruction, Southern paintings by white artists showed African Americans as largely dehumanized caricatures, black stereotypes rather than distinct individuals. The contrived and exaggerated physical features, poor quality clothing, and subservient activities of the subjects clearly cast them as outside or beneath the dominant, white social order.

Sambo, Top Hat, Zip Coon, and other stock figures, often from the minstrel tradition, were popular subjects for white artists working in the South during this time period. These restrictive, demeaning stereotypes relegated African Americans to inferior roles and served to justify white denial of their humanity.

In the early years, following the Civil war, changes in depictions of African Americans in paintings by white artists working in the South, reflected the massive social upheaval that followed the war's wake. By the mid 1870's, as Reconstruction drew to a close, an idealized nostalgia for the prewar relationship between the races, as whites chose to remember it, began to appear more frequently. The images from this period depicted the era before the Civil War as a time of harmony and tranquility between whites and blacks. Memory is unintentionally selective, and white southern artists gave certain symbolic relationships - Mammy and her white charges, for example- more prominence than they deserved in representing the social relationships between the races.

Artists painting in the South presented a meticulous but one-sided image of African American life after the Civil War. Portrayals of African Americans remained nostalgic, rural and frequently demeaning until the sweep of migration and urbanization of African Americans to the North in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Images of African Americans in paintings gradually evolved to reflect the change from agrarian livelihood to industrialized, urban living. White artists began to depict dignified African Americans in Southern paintings with a clear individuality.

The effect of the First World War and other foreign conflicts of the early decades of the twentieth century seem to have had little bearing upon depictions of African Americans in the work of white painters. Movements in the art world, however, were to have significant effects, particularly the emergence of realism and the Ashcan School style of painting. Ashcan artists celebrated physical labor; the primary employment of African Americans. Southern artists such as Alfred Hutty, Christopher Murphy Jr. and Nell Choate Jones demonstrate this influence in the characterization of African Americans in paintings of the 1920's and 1930's. Murphy, an aristocratic Southerner, depicted historical black structures as specific sites and by doing so; he dignified the African American architectural legacy as well as the people.

While the Harlem Renaissance was mostly a regional phenomenon, it did give rise to a heightened awareness of the creativity and talent of African American artists. These artists characteristically portrayed members of their race in a realistic manner and legitimized them as subjects for fine art expression. With opportunities for art education available from institutions such as the Art Students League, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design, black artists found their work accepted in fine arts circles and juried exhibitions. This development set a new tone for the portrayal of African Americans in art and broadened the scope of their treatment as subjects.

Paintings with African American images reflected the improved status of African Americans, but the traditional images of this earlier period remind us of the complexity of this issue and, despite their nostalgic draw, of a place to which we do not wish to return. The evolution of African American images in American art has not been one of consistent progress, but it its impetus has been forward and is a positive reflection of social changes and public attitudes.

On loan from the Collection of Dr. Everette James and Dr. Nancy Farmer

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