Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950
by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge
The narrative paintings that illustrate, or at least draw their inspiration from, written texts are not always easily deciphered, but even more challenging can be those that derive from the maker's own personal history or private reveries. Such incidents mayor, more likely, may not have any basis in a shared culture or experience. Carroll Cloar's Story Told by My Mother, 1955 (cat. no. 17), is one such painting. While it demonstrates the survival of the romantic imagination well into the modern, scientific age, it also cloaks its story in personal terms not immediately intelligible to the viewer. When he was young, Cloar's mother told him fantastic tales of wild panthers that used to roam his native Arkansas, a vivid childhood impression that years later reappeared in his paintings. Sometimes, as here, the cat is accompanied by Mother; more often it is alone or in the company of other panthers. Father also played a role in the artist's painted reminiscences; in My Father Was Big as a Tree, 1955 (fig. 7), Cloar père looms larger than life, in a manner reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico's child's-eye vision of paternal power (fig. 8). In these and other paintings from what Cloar called his Childhood Imagery series, the artist sought to paint "how I visualized those things when I was told about them. . . . I've tried to keep a child's point of view, the simplicity, the wonder."
The stories that moved Bryson Burroughs were, by contrast, less personal in nature. He generally drew his themes from familiar sources -- mythology, the Bible, medieval legends -- and retold them in paint, often with subtle, humorous additions. His early Parisian training gave him a taste for the symbolic and decorative work of Puvis de Chavannes, and Burroughs adapted the French master's manner and classical subjects to new circumstances. In Eurydice Bitten by the Snake (Metropolitan Museum of Art), for instance, the wound is bound in modern, one-inch gauze bandage; in Island of Naxos (1928; Whitney Museum of American Art) Theseus sails away from the ancient island on a nineteenth-century schooner, abandoning Ariadne to her fate. Such anachronisms were noted by contemporary critics, some of whom complained, others of whom, like Henry McBride, found them charming. '"If you have any real learning or humanity in your make-up," he wrote, '"you will be entertained rather than annoyed by the fact that the drowsy servant in the picture of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood [cat. no. 12] bears a turkish towel upon her arm that came newly from Macy's." In addition to the issue of linens, Burroughs's Sleeping Beauty conflates medieval legend with current events in other ways, both national and personal. The medieval maiden slumbers on a bed covered with a symbolic cloth decorated with the Tudor Rose and the sign of the Crown of England, a venerable monarchy newly threatened by world war. Surrounding the maiden are sleepy attendants, some reclining in poses reminiscent of figures painted by the British pre-Raphaelites, Ferdinand Hodler, or Arthur B. Davies; their slumberous state enhances the dreamlike quality of the scene. Intruding into the idyll, an American doughboy slumps beside a tree in the darkened woods beyond, providing a reference to the belated U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917, the year the painting was made, and to the bloody battles on the Western Front, where Allied casualties were high. Overhead, like some escapees from a Puvis mural, angels flutter. The red blossoms they bear may symbolize continued life among the bleak circumstances of modern war; conversely, the flowers may refer to bloody Flanders fields, where the poppies grow, for the flower was also an ancient symbol of death, accounting for its prominence in Elihu Vedder's funereal Memory (Girl with Poppies) (cat. no. 64). Such a reading might have personalized the subject for Burroughs. His Sleeping Beauty is laid out like a corpse on a catafalque; that pose might recall the artist's own young wife, who had died just the preceding year. His multivalent modern image masquerades as a medieval fairy tale, a trait that earned praise from his contemporaries for "invest[ing] classic tales with the same lively spirit which must have animated their original telling, rather than the stiff, soulless treatment which is characteristic of most academic portrayals."
Elliott Daingerfield, like Ryder and Vedder, created with poesie as well as paint. His fanciful imagination was especially stirred by a memorable visit to the Grand Canyon in 1911. The Santa Fe Railroad Company sponsored his visit, as it did for several prominent artists, in an effort to stimulate tourism in the Southwest; but Daingerfield's patron could scarcely have anticipated his eventual visionary conceptions of the region. The railroad's other guests limned the country's geological drama and its ancient, exotic peoples. Unlike them, Daingerfield imagined a race of giants along the canyon's brink, and land forms morphing into golden temples, shimmering in what the artist called "the light of the spirit, the presence of the something which has no material or objective expression." In The Sleepers, 1914 (cat. no. 19), recumbent figures draped across the canyon's near edge appear to be asleep, but according to the poem Daingerfield composed to accompany the picture, these Amazons, though shut-eyed, actively imagine. They "see in spirit" what others cannot or will not:
The dream state celebrated by Daingerfield was part of the cultural legacy of the turn of the century, an escape from the mundane into personal reveries, often filled with fantastic events and creatures. Daingerfield's sleepers, like those by Burroughs, merge considerations for the perceived world, for actual events, with unique personal fantasies, creating pictorial narratives of a distinctive sort. The dream state painted by Thomas Hart Benton a generation later perpetuated this type of fantastic tale but imbued it with more calamitous overtones. His Engineer's Dream (cat. no. 6), painted in 1931, had its immediate inspiration in a country music ballad of the sort Benton enjoyed collecting and performing. However, the apparently straightforward musical narrative of a bridge collapse and train wreck could be read as having larger implications. Painted in a year of great economic peril and social upheaval, the sleeping engineer might represent the nation's leader, President Herbert Hoover, literally asleep at the switch, heedless of and powerless to stop the nation's impending catastrophe represented by the nightmare behind him. The simple lyrics of a country song might be an allegory of the Great Depression and national calamity.
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Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 9, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Charles C. Eldredge and the University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. The essay was previously included in pages 7 through 70 in an illustrated exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings from Southeastern Museums, circa 1800-1950. The exhibit was held at the Columbus Museum from February 8 and through April 11, ,2004 with additional venues including the Tampa Art Museum (April 25-July 11, 2004), The Speed Art Museum (September 14-December 12, 2004) and the El Paso Art Museum (January 16-April 10, 2005). The exhibition catalogue was published in 2004, ISBN 0-8203-2569-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. We wish to extend our appreciation to Mr. Tom Butler, director, The Columbus Museum for his courtesy in connection with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Columbus Museum through either this phone number or web address:
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