Tales from the Easel: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American Narrative Paintings, circa 1800-1950
by Dr. Charles C. Eldredge
The figures who crowd the urban scenes of William Glackens and the Ashcan school, of Reginald Marsh and countless other painters of the city scene, may interact, may constitute a community. Or, like those in Edward Hopper's views, they may not. "The lonely crowd" had roots in the urbanization of the United States beginning well before David Riesman so characterized it in his best-seller of the Cold War years. As described by sociologist Michael Harrington, mid-twentieth-century American life might be, and often was, "lived in common, but not in community."
If sometimes lacking in modern cities, the ideal of community has elsewhere long been a powerful motivation in human society. "No man is an island," John Donne reminded us. The fellowship of the like-minded has been celebrated in song and verse, in paint and prose for generations. "What life have you if you have not life together?" asked T. S. Eliot. "There is no life that is not in community." D. H. Lawrence voiced a similar ideal. "Men are free," he wrote, "when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west." While Lawrence's believing community might differ in some particulars from Eliot's moral gathering, both writers sought the realization of their ideal in human association, not isolation.
So too did Walt Whitman. Concluding a remarkable inventory of individuals and types, Whitman the democrat asserted:
The poet contains multitudes: "In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less." Out of the many, he discovers the self. As with political entities, so too in associations of sentiment; the statesman's E Pluribus unum becomes the poet's E Pluribus ego.
Whitman's merger of self and multitudes, like his "barbaric yawp," had no equals in American letters. But the communitarian ideal toward which he strove, as did Eliot and Lawrence, was manifest in many forms in the American experience. A shared faith, profession, or education; race or class; gender; or mere propinquity -- the catalysts for such affiliations are numerous. And notwithstanding the stereotype of the starving artist alone in the garret, creative types often coalesced in such groups. Some were bound by social and professional affiliations, such as the denizens of New York's Tenth Street Studio Building or of early-twentieth-century art colonies; members of artistic fraternities; or simply those who shared stylistic persuasions. Other communities were drawn together by utopian ideals, from Bronson Alcott's Fruitlands experiment to the Oneida colony or the Roycrofters, both based in upstate New York, to hippie communes of the 1960s and beyond. Not surprisingly, depictions of such communities or communal activities often occupied American artists.
In his painting based on the Negro spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (cat. no. 3), Lamar Baker included a vignette of a baptism ritual in a southern stream. It is a subject that has occupied a number of painters, both in Baker's day (for example, J.Kelly Fitzpatrick, William H.Johnson, Clementine Hunter) and our own (fig. 22). Immersion figured in white congregations as well as black, and in places far from the South, providing subject matter for John Steuart Curry's famous Baptism in Kansas, 1928 (Whitney Museum of American Art), and Peter Hurd's New Mexico scene, Baptizing at "Three Wells," circa 1937 (fig. 23). These modern examples were preceded by a century or more in Baptism in Virginia, 1836 (cat. no. 54), an early work by W. T. Russell Smith. Smith witnessed the event while he was in the nation's capital on an assignment with the old Washington Theatre to paint scenery, a field in which he enjoyed renown. He depicted the baptism with great attention to details of the landscape -- another of his specialties -- particularly evident in the trees that tower over the fashionably dressed congregation gathered at the river.
Jacob Marling, the first professional artist to practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, documented a seasonal ceremony at the Raleigh Academy in The Crowning of Flora, 1816 (cat. no. 43), one of the earliest pictorial records of the education of young women in the young republic. The academy trained both boys and girls but did so separately. Marling portrayed the May Day crowning of Flora, festivities that were subsequently reported in a Lynchburg, Virginia, newspaper; the journalistic account parallels Marling's painting in key details, permitting us to identify the speaker addressing her classmates and the May Queen being decked with flowers. Other precisely drawn details -- the weather vane and cupola of North Carolina's first statehouse, the red brick of the first State Bank of North Carolina, the music master with instrument -- further suggest the artist's pains to document the scene faithfully. Also concerned with education, but depicted in a more impressionistic, less documentary manner, is William Wotherspoon's sun-dappled Scene outside a Southern Schoolhouse (cat. no. 69). The education of young black children, such as Wotherspoon depicted, would have been unlikely in the antebellum South, when literacy among slaves was discouraged; the subject, as well as the sparkling plein-air style, suggest a postwar date, in the late 1860s or later in the artist's life (1821-1888).
The quasi-impressionist manner of Wotherspoon's painting clearly places it later than W. S. Hedges's outdoor scene A Race Meeting at Jacksonville, Alabama, 1841 (cat. no. 30), in which details of the festive crowd, the coursing thoroughbreds, and especially the towering clouds are all crisply drawn. This sporting picture documents an early race -- perhaps the inaugural -- of the Jockey Club in Jacksonville, one of several such clubs that flourished in Alabama and throughout the South in the mid-nineteenth century. The Jacksonville group was made up of horse breeders who used the annual races as promotion for their stock's abilities. As evident in Hedges's view, the races were lively affairs that drew the attention of large crowds, including journalists as well as painters. A newspaper account that detailed the event confirms the essentials of the painting: "There was a half mile or more of low buildings, stables and jockey's quarters; and all about were the pleasure loving crowds, the fashionably dressed and the poorly clad, mingling in a kaleidoscope of controlled confusion. In the judges' stand were the moguls of the racing circles, their eyes turned to the mile long oval of the tract, to the rippling-muscled thoroughbreds pitting speed against steed as they thundered down the track to the roar of the crowd."
Nothing is known of the artist Hedges, nor of the circumstances surrounding this painting's creation. It might have been commissioned by a Jockey Club member as a memento of the Jacksonville races or as promotion for the event. The painter clearly was familiar with British sporting pictures, a genre that flourished in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; beyond the general source for Hedges's subject, British paintings also provided specific details, such as the nearly airborne steeds (as they were commonly depicted before chronophotography allowed analysis of the animal's body position at a full gallop) and the counterclockwise direction of the race. (The artist may even have been a Briton traveling in America, as a number of Europeans did in the 1830s and' 40s, a surmise suggested by the painting's English provenance.) More than any "British" aspect of the scene, however, what seems most striking today is the depiction of an antebellum crowd in which blacks and whites seem to mingle easily, which was not always the case in Alabama or elsewhere in the United States.
A century later, crowds of mixed races appeared in the urban scenes of Reginald Marsh and other New York painters. In Marsh's Lifeguards, 1933 (cat. no. 44), the bronzed gods of Coney Island or Far Rockaway preside over a scantily clad assembly of bathers, black and white. The painting strongly pyramidal, and stable, nearly classical, in its composition -- features a summertime community worshiping sun and surf and fine physique.
While Marsh's beach scene might be considered typical of shores in any metropolitan coastal area, John McCrady's city crowd motif is decidedly localized in its references. The Parade, 1950 (cat. no. 47), depicts the annual Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, the artist's home for more than thirty years. In 1938, McCrady was instrumental in founding A New Southern Group, an association of New Orleans artists who favored motifs of regional significance. In line with this priority, some of his works were inspired by Negro spirituals (including Swing Low, Sweet Chariot) and biblical tales, and many of them depict the southern black, rural or urban. In The Parade his attention is directed to the city, New Orleans at its most famous and flamboyant moment of Mardi Gras. The pre-Lenten festivities provided the subject for several paintings and prints in the late 1940s, as well as masks that the artist fashioned for the annual frolic. The Parade juxtaposes the streetscape of krewes and revelers with interior spaces of the artist's studio building. McCrady also used the curious device of a cutaway structure in I Can't Sleep (Morris Museum of Art), which he began in the mid-1930s but did not finish until 1948. The cutaway had appeared earlier in various works by other artists. Diego Rivera, for example, used it as a compositional device in murals, such as the one at the San Francisco Art Institute (1931). American easel painters also used the transparent or missing wall in their works, where it seemed surreally to divide past and present or dream and reality, or more generally to represent depression-era decrepitude. In McCrady's case, the missing wall reveals the private creative precinct of the artist's studio, where a painter (presumably McCrady himself) concentrates at his easel, in contrast to the communal celebrations one floor above and outside in the Vieux Carre.
The painter at his easel amid the gaiety of Mardi Gras suggests a level of concentration, and sometimes isolation, required for his art. In her Cafe Fortune Teller, 1933 (cat. no. 2), Mary Aiken painted a divinator similarly apart from a crowd -- in her case, the working-class patrons of a Spanish bar. The difficulties of global economic collapse reached even to the sunny Mediterranean isle of Ibiza, where Aiken spent two years in the early 1930s, following art studies in Madrid and as she began her professional career. As an American who spoke no Spanish and a woman in the masculine world of the cafe, Aiken may have identified with the lone woman in her composition; whether or not she intended the pun, the fortune-teller, seen from the vantage of the painter-client, is, like the visual artist, a seer. Fate, forecast in the chance turn of a card, was queried in the midst of the anxious era's economic and political uncertainties, when foretelling the future would have been a special gift, indeed.
At earlier periods of cultural anxiety, other artists had turned to representations of Fate -- sometimes personified as the Roman goddess Fortuna, sometimes as a Greek oracle, sometimes as the mysterious Sphinx -- as if answers to the uncertainties of their age might be found there. Elihu Vedder was early to explore such mysterious and emotionally charged imagery, as in his Questioner of the Sphinx, 1863 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). From the late 1870s, he was compelled by the figure of Fortune, a theme that led him to explorations of iconography, the language of symbols. This preoccupation culminated in his large canvas of a winged figure who sits atop a wheel of fortune showering dice, the symbols of chance, upon the world below (fig. 24). (The dice replaced what Vedder called "'good luck' pearls" that fell from Fortune's hands in earlier compositional studies.)
Over the course of the nation's history, Fortuna or Lady Luck was often invoked, particularly during moments of stress. Vedder's preoccupation with the subject climaxed in the anxious atmosphere of the fin de siècle, having begun in the uncertainties of Civil War and its aftermath. The mid-1870s, when Vedder's fascination with the subject blossomed, were difficult years, both for the artist and for the nation at large, punctuated by the collapse of Reconstruction and the financial panic of 1873, which led to a depression lasting three years. In the midst of this political and economic calamity, the search for good luck took on new urgency.
It did so again during the difficult years surrounding World War I, when George Luks, for instance, painted his Fortune Teller, 1920 (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art). In the drear years of the Great Depression the quest for Fortune appeared (in the American vernacular) as a crapshoot, a subject for several prominent artists of the period. Earlier in the century, craps and games of chance had figured prominently in James Weldon Johnson's novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), in which the narrator, newly arrived in New York City, is seduced by "the caprices of fortune at the gaming table," particularly "the ancient and terribly fascinating game of dice, popularly known as 'craps.'" Enchanted by tossing dice, accompanied by the players' "mystic incantations," the newcomer succumbs, with predictable outcome. Only after surviving the giddy highs and lows of the gambler's life -- "that dark period" -- did the narrator escape, to "look back upon the life 1 then led with a shudder. . . . But had 1 not escaped it," he preachily concluded, "I should have been no more unfortunate than are many young coloured men who. . . fall under the spell of this under life" that leaves "will and moral sense so enervated and deadened."
Of course, Johnson's narrator need not have left his native South to discover the game that seemed universal by the time Thomas Hart Benton sketched African American deckhands shooting craps on a Mississippi River boat in 1928. Benton's initial pen-and-ink sketch became parent to a group of images in watercolor and an eventual oil (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art); the crapshooters subsequently resurfaced in a vignette in Benton's Arts of the South (New Britain Museum of American Art), part of his mural cycle The Arts of Life in America, originally painted for the Whitney Museum in 1932. Four years later, in Charleston, South Carolina, Andree Ruellan painted eight blacks engaged in a game of craps (fig. 25). Christopher Clark also turned to the subject in 1936, when he painted The Crapshooters (cat. no. 16) in Tampa, Florida. Five black players, pivoting around the central blue-shirted man, are drawn and brushed with precision, their muscular contours and lively poses suggesting affinities with Benton's "bumps and hollows" manner of figurative drawing. Clark was among the team of muralists assembled by Donald Deskey to decorate interior spaces in Radio City Music Hall, and the crisp contours of Clark's figures suggest the influence of the stylization evident in that Art Deco landmark. Like Reginald Marsh, Ben Shahn, and other social realists of the period, Clark used newspaper headlines to provide a commentary on his subject; in this case an ironic note is introduced as one gambler tosses a lucky seven across a headline that reports [J]URY PROBES VICE.
Clark's Crapshooters has been called an example of the regionalist art that flourished in the 1930s. The claim is reinforced by the general setting, and more so by the specific Tampa journal upon which dice and dollars lie. But in a larger sense, and perhaps paradoxically, the painting of Florida gamblers presents a tale universal in its connotations. Like Aiken's Ibiza cafe scene, it deals with a particular time and place but also with the larger issues of fate and fortune, so elusive across this nation and abroad during the troubled 1930s.
The figures in Marie Hull's Sharecroppers, 1938 (cat. no. 35), were certainly short on luck and fortune. The pair were part of a group of figure studies made of destitute farmers in Hull's native Mississippi during the bleakest years of the depression. Her out-of-Iuck sharecroppers and tenant farmers were rendered with a sensitivity worthy of Walker Evans, as in his photographs of the rural poor from the same troubled time and region: closely observed, with details telling of hard labor, yet with a sense of human dignity intact. The models for this painting captured the artist's eye and her sympathy; they had been reduced to wandering around Jackson sharpening scissors or performing other menial day jobs for meager pay until hired by Hull to pose for her series of approximately twenty Sharecropper paintings.
The hard times of the 1930s were not peculiar to the South, but rather were felt across the nation, including New Mexico. There, in 1935, Walter Ufer painted Bob Abbott and His Assistant (cat. no. 62), the last major canvas by this early member of the Taos art colony. The artist initially referred to this portrait of his good friends -- auto mechanic Abbott and Jim Mirabel, a member of the Taos Pueblo and Ufer's longtime model and assistant -- as Two Workers, a designation that suggests equality between the subjects. It was in Abbott's repair shop on the Taos Plaza that Ufer and his friends would while away many hours drinking and gambling. Such pursuits led to Ufer's deteriorated health and finances by the time of the 1935 painting, which marked a final determined effort before his death the following year. The painting's original title also implied a celebration of labor, a concern that conforms to Ufer's political sympathies, which ran to Trotsky, socialism, and the International Workers of the World. Jerry Smith speculates that the change in title might have been the artist's effort to soften the political implications of the subject and increase the likelihood of its sale.
Like a machine in the garden -- or, rather, the desert -- Ufer's deluxe Buick touring car intrudes rudely into the sparkling southwestern landscape, the subject of many Taos school paintings. But the nineteen-year-old automotive star of this composition -- a modern subject rarely tackled by Taos painters -- is broken. This might be a reference to the fabled origins of the art colony, when another vehicular problem (a broken wagon wheel) led to the "discovery" of the scenic village by traveling artists Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips; it might also be a metaphor for the state of the American economy of 1935, or an allusion to the state of Ufer's health and reputation of that same date.
Like Hull's Mississippi sharecroppers or Ufer's Taos laborers, the subjects of James Chapin's canvases stoically awaited the economy's and society's return to working order. The New Jersey painter was hailed by Thomas Craven, champion of the midwestern regionalists, as "conscientious in the extreme, devoid of all that is showy, shocking, or momentary, and averse to publicity," the last perhaps accounting for his relative unfamiliarity today. Moving away from his early French mannerisms and dismissive of "the usual provincial superiority complex of the European" artist or critic, Chapin sought his inspiration instead among the American working class, as shown for example in Nine Workmen, 1942-45 (cat. no. 14). Some writers speculate that his training in Antwerp exposed him to the influence of the Belgian artist and socialist Constantin Meunier, whose subjects and sympathies were akin to Chapin's own. Whatever their source, Chapin's portraits of workers, rendered with a sharply focused realism, won praise from his friend Grant Wood as "among the best things in American art, strong and solid as boulders. They were full of the pain and bleakness of a frugal existence of the land, yet possessed a subtle, melancholy beauty of their own."
Chapin knew something of pain and bleakness. The bonds that unite his workmen suggest the sort of community from which, for much of his life, the artist felt estranged. As a youngster, a severe stammer made him self-conscious and shy, leading to "enforced abstention from the company of his playfellows," according to one of his contemporaries. Nine Workmen and his other depictions of groups -- which included farmers, musicians, prizefighters, and gangsters -- represent as well a redress for "the wall of loneliness which New York puts up around sensitive country boys" such as James Chapin of rural New Jersey.
The artist's early works earned him the sobriquet "the American Cezanne" for their mastery of French modernist principles. However, the paintings for which he first achieved wide acclaim were a series of realistic portraits of the Marvin family, simple farmers from Sussex County, New Jersey, sitters whom critics thought typified "the upstanding, independent man with long roots in the soil he owns" -- Emmet Marvin, or his brother George, as the Jeffersonian yeoman, the American Adam. Chapin lived on the Marvin farm and worked with the family from 1924 to 1929. Years later he explained this retreat from the artiness of New York, betraying a wariness of metropolitan mores that was a constant in his career: "I have tried to live as much of my life as I could among other kinds of people [than artists], away from the studio. . . not wanting it to encompass a way of life in which to develop and exploit special paint skills to be repeated again and again."
Before Grant Wood painted the plain folk of his native Iowa, before Curry painted Kansas or Benton Missouri, Chapin discovered in the New Jersey farm community of ordinary, hard-working Americans a rich vein to mine. Critics lauded the works of the "Marvin years," praising the artist's "elemental subjects. . . which represent the energy and power of a new country in the making."
Chapin explained his effort to express the unique strength and personality of each of his subjects through "the symbol of human gesture. . . not the gesture of hands and feet so much as the carriage of the human body and the human head." The subjects of Nine Workmen are diverse in age and race or ethnic type; the workers' feet are obscured, as are most of their hands, the concentration being on erect carriage (except the seated eldest) and strongly individuated heads turned in various alignments. "I like solid things," explained the artist, "so my composing inevitably is concerned with the organization of objects in space." These objects, or figures, were "constructed to symbolize their weight" and arranged in highly structured compositions. These subjects of the 1940s, pictorial descendants of the Marvins from twenty years earlier, appear to have realized the promise of work that their predecessors awaited throughout the depression. Together with their antecedents, Chapin's working-class subjects constitute a dignified community of labor, one endowed with exceptional gravitas.
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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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