Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950

by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge


6. Agrarian America

'"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God."[57] So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784). In Letters from an American Farmer, published only two years earlier, French emigre Hector St.John de Crevecoeur concurred. Describing the young American society, he wrote that, with "some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida." It was this work in the soil, this closeness to nature, this democracy of tillers that made America's "the most perfect society now existing in the world."[58]

The Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer had a long hold on the American imagination, perhaps nowhere more so than in Jefferson's native South. The manifesto of the Southern States Art League, established in 1928, called for artists to celebrate "those relations to the soil which have made us what we are."[59] Two years later, at Nashville's Vanderbilt University, a group of writers calling themselves Twelve Southerners voiced similar concerns in their manifesto, I'll Take My Stand, a landmark in American letters and regional identity. Opposed to the dehumanizing encroachments of modern industrialization and urbanization, the Twelve took a stand in Dixieland and looked away from the present. Theirs was a clarion call for a return to the values of an agrarian, Jeffersonian past. "Suddenly we realized to the full," wrote Donald Davidson, one of the Vanderbilt Twelve, "what we had long been dimly feeling, that the Lost Cause might not be wholly lost after all. In its very backwardness the South had clung to some secret which embodied, it seemed, the elements out of which its own reconstruction -- and possibly even the reconstruction of America -- might be achieved."[60]

Davidson, like his Vanderbilt collaborators, decried "an industrialized society [that] will extinguish the meaning of the arts, as humanity has known them in the past." He saw the arts, in all their rich variety, as the products of "societies which were for the most part stable, religious, and agrarian. . . where men were never too far removed from nature to forget that the chief subject of art, in the final sense, is nature."[61] Or as another of the group put it when contemplating modern, industrialized agriculture, "A farm is not a place to grow wealthy; it is a place to grow corn."[62]

The agrarian life and the American farm were not, of course, unique to the South, but rather provided a common basis for the development of American culture from its colonial period well into the nineteenth century. About 1850, Jerome Thompson began garnering kudos for his genre paintings of rural life, predominantly picnic and harvest scenes that distinctively combined figurative groups in idyllic landscape settings. His Noonday in Summer, 1852 (cat. no. 61), is a typical example. These celebrations of the virtues of rural life appeared at a moment of rapid transition for American agriculture and, with it, American society. Urban centers, the home to an expanding industry, were growing in number and size, drawing populations from the countryside and immigrants from overseas; by 1850, the annual output of our mills and factories surpassed the value of American agricultural products.[63] Thompson's pastorals were, then, a purposeful anachronism, a nostalgic return to once-upon-a-time designed for and marketed to audiences of urban professionals, not to the farmers themselves. The nostalgic note of Noonday in Summer anticipated a post-Civil War outpouring of such rustic reveries. Winslow Homer's Song of the Lark, 1876 (fig. 16), for instance, is a Centennial-year paean to the agrarians who had shaped the nation. The impetus continued into the next decade, when William Bliss Baker painted Hiding in the Haycocks, 1881 (cat. no. 4). The children who play in Baker's haycocks --who play at rural life -- are far removed from the field labors depicted in rustic genre scenes of a half century earlier. Roxana Barry found significance in the youthful populations of such late-century scenes as Baker's. Equating the children with innocence and associating the farm setting with an earlier epoch, she noted, ""To the sophisticated audience, these children in rustic landscapes represented their own lost innocence, and by extension, that of the country itself."[64]

The decline in rural populations and the eclipse of agrarian traditions had begun even before the Civil War. "Once upon a time. . ." began an 1858 Harper's Weekly story about a dying farm town in rural Connecticut, "no less than three 'stores' made it a place of commercial importance. But this Augustan age has passed forever. In the valleys round about thriving factory villages have sprung up, and business has slid down into them."[65] The "slide" away from an "Augustan" era of rural communities and country stores, the transition from field to factory, continued through the nineteenth century and into the next, gathering momentum in the years following World War I. Industry offered new economic opportunity to legions of southern blacks, drawing them to northern cities, and in the process transforming both their former homeland and burgeoning urban centers from New York to Pittsburgh, Chicago, and beyond.

In the 1930s, the agrarian ideal was further challenged by catastrophic Dust Bowl conditions in the nation's heartland and by crop failures elsewhere. For many farmers, the toil of reaping and harvesting became a struggle for survival, one that many lost. Many of those who remained on the land faced deprivations and hardship, and their trials provided subjects for artists. George Biddle, for one example, painted South Carolina Landscape in 1931 (Columbia [S.C.] Museum of Art); his experience of the blighted rural landscape may subsequently have helped shape his concept for federal relief programs for artists, which his friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, implemented soon after his inauguration in 1933. The hardship was especially acute for landless southern sharecroppers, such as the white Mississippi pair painted by Marie Hull (cat. no. 35) or the African American subject in Jacob Lawrence's The Plowman (cat. no. 40). In his typical fashion, Lawrence reduced the elements of his little picture to simplified patterns of man, mules, and land. "The more you reduce something," he once explained, "the more it can become suggestive, dynamic."[66] Painted in 1942, immediately after the completion of his best-known work -- the Migration series of sixty panels depicting the exodus of southern blacks -- The Plowman is a separate and unique piece, not part of an extended narrative scheme. But it shares with the Migration images a distinctive modernist style and the empathetic relation to his racial subject. Both diminutive man and oversized beasts bow to the burden of turning ground; the curious overhead vantage causes the land behind them to heave upward in a striated pattern suggesting both abstract design and the patterns of contour plowing, then being advocated for land conservation. In a single and somber panel, Lawrence is able to summarize the difficult plight of the beleaguered sharecropper, far removed from Jefferson's divinely favored yeoman farmer.

Other visions of rural America from the same decade suggest the transformation of that arena, once the locus of democratic virtues and strength. The pastoral landscape grows nightmarish in Carlos Moon's Moonlight on Pickle Hill, ca. 1948 (cat. no. 48). The artist explained that his conventional depiction of the landscape failed to express what he felt on coming upon this hill around a curve in the road. He therefore exaggerated its height and the narrowness of the rise -- as well as the spooky clouds and rickety buildings -- to produce "something that looks like a picture out of a fairy book."[67] But this is no comforting country tale; Moon does not deal in the happily-ever-after. The scene is veiled in the mysteries of night. A skeletal scarecrow replaces the human presence in a Charles Addams-esque landscape of agitated, writhing forms. In this scene, farm structures totter, suggesting the instability of agrarian tradition. The peace and prosperity implied by Thompson's antebellum harvest here yield to anxieties of the Cold War era transferred to the rural landscape.

Robert Gwathmey made his reputation with depictions of the rural South, particularly of its African American population. Gwathmey painted Marketing (cat. no. 27) in the difficult years of World War II, as rural America, particularly in Gwathmey's native South, struggled with problems of race and caste aggravated by war and a troubled economy. A product of his early career, Marketing precedes his familiar mature style of stylized dark linear patterns; yet like his later, socially engaged works and like the works of his friend Jacob Lawrence, it features an African American. (Gwathmey rather enjoyed being referred to as the "white Jacob Lawrence.") When he returned to Virginia after his first trip out of the region, he "was shocked by the poverty. The most shocking thing," recalled Gwathmey, "was the Negroes, the oppressed segment" of American society.[68] In Marketing, a lone black man -- to judge from his dress, a farmer or sharecropper -- stands outside a rude structure, a rural store; beside him, a mislettered sign invokes the complicated symbolism of the apple: the temptation in the Garden, the symbol of harvest bounty, the ubiquitous offering of impoverished Great Depression-era vendors. Empty cans, the detritus of modern commerce, litter the hard red ground from which a single corn stalk struggles to emerge. The side of the building is plastered with commercial advertisements, appropriations from the popular culture that Gwathmey used similarly in numerous works to provide a poignant contrast of have-not subjects with their materialistic surroundings. The tattered posters, suggestive of time's ravages, promote' various enticements seemingly remote from the sharecropper's hardscrabble existence. Many of these have symbolic associations that inform and enrich the narrative implicit in the painting: Coca Cola (a southern product) and (southern fried) chicken; a blonde siren from the movies' dream world; the number "666," referring to a favorite southern elixir -- for Gwathmey, a metaphor for the region's self-deception -- but also the apocalyptic symbol for the Antichrist (Revelation 13:18); a circus poster with lion and elephants (like the black man, with origins in Africa) of the sort that reappeared the following year in Bread and Circuses (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass.), whose lone black man, struggling corn crop, and rickety building are all prefigured in Marketing. With a striking economy of means, Gwathmey tells of the suffering economy and impoverished dreams of rural America at the mid-twentieth century.


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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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