Editor's note: The Spartanburg Art Museum and the The Johnson Collection provided source material to Resource Library for the following texts. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Spartanburg Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Mundane and Sublime: Wash Day Images from the Johnson Collection

by Lauren Brunk, Curator, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC


Washing was certainly some of the hardest, hottest and most laborious of household tasks. It was not interesting; it was routine, commonplace and tedious -- mundane. In the country one made the soap, built a fire, boiled and scrubbed and finally hung the clothes on the line. Perhaps therein lies the sublime: the relief of a difficult task completed, linens flapping in a breeze, sun-dried garments.



When combined with the pristine southern landscape, imagery of clothing and linens on a line conveys not only notions of habitation but those of refinement and civilization. One gets a sense that the people inhabiting these cabins labor to make a mark on the land, that they are independent and industrious. The romantic ideal of the American wilderness is combined with the belief in a work ethic, lending a noble air to what might otherwise seem a simple cabin in a field. Those clean shirts and towels deliver the message that even in these difficult surroundings, someone spent most of a day over a boiling pot of water to be sure the family had clean clothes. This in turn points to an understanding of what constituted acceptable social standards that was present even in the most remote localities.

Nowhere are these ideas better represented than in the painting by Gilbert Gaul, "Van Buren, Tennessee." (fig.1) The cabin represented is part of the landscape discovered by Gaul when he and his wife inherited a cabin in TN. His artwork bloomed through a provision in the inheritance, stating that he had to inhabit the property for four years. This is arguably where Gaul did some of his best work. Elliot Daingerfield, raised in Fayetteville, NC, was also inspired to use the picturesque and only slightly domesticated countryside near Blowing Rock, NC as the subject matter for a large body of his work including "Cannon Towels." (fig 2.) Daingerfield's artistic style was profoundly influenced by a period of time he spent in New York when he met and worked along side George Inness. From Inness he learned techniques for layering paint to create the luminous landscapes that would become his hallmark.

It was not uncommon for an artist painting in the south to use the ubiquitous country cabin with laundry drying in the sun as a means to express an idealized vision of the rural, agrarian life. This subject was compelling for a number of reasons: it was readily available, it offered some prospect of salability, and allowed them to put forward their virtuosity in a particular media, as with pastels in the case of Charleston Renaissance artist Elizabeth O'Neill Verner (fig. 3), or the oil on board genre paintings of William Aiken Walker. (fig 4.) In these cases laundry is atmospheric, almost incidental.

There were indeed painters who chose to view wash day as a somewhat less delightful, though no less visually compelling undertaking. The paintings of three artists working well into the twentieth century remind us that the inhabitants of these bucolic settings still washed their clothes in a cast iron pot or tin wash tub. Eugene Thomason, a student and later colleague of George Luks, spent much of his career recording the mountain people of North Carolina (fig. 5). Thought to be the "Ashcan artist of the Appalachians," Thomason recorded these scenes with great empathy, realizing that his subjects were poor in a traditional sense but not without character and a distinct culture. Amelia Montague Watson is another artist who chose to record some of daily life in the southern mountains. She painted with a group of artists working in Tryon, NC and has recreated the steaming reality of the task at hand (fig. 6). Still one almost misses the pig rooting at our laundress' feet because the eye is drawn to the mountain background. Finally, Richard Bryan's "Monday Morning" (fig. 7) conveys a sense of the isolation and strenuous labor that attended agrarian life on John's Island, near Charleston, SC.

It is important to point out that there was some engagement in "Colonial Revivalism" here and that by the time these particular works were painted; modern amenities had indeed arrived in most of the south.



In southern cities, laundry was no less difficult than it was in the countryside. While one may have had access to a more convenient shared water source, one had decidedly less space to perform the onerous task of soaking, boiling, scrubbing, hanging to dry and ironing. However, laundry day in the urban environment did provide a social occasion as one waited a turn at the well or pump. In addition, proximity to a sizable population afforded an opportunity to source this task to others. One could send laundry out or hire a laundress to come in. This provided relief for a woman with some means and it provided income to women who had family obligations.

Like many subjects depicted by artists working in the south, wash day provides the backdrop for an exploration of real people's lives. These images are both a record of events and an idealization of simple domesticity. Alfred H. Hutty, one of the most recognizable of the Charleston Renaissance artists, often chose to include laundry lines and black servants in the scenes he painted of the alleys between the grand houses and service buildings in Charleston. (fig. 8) Aiden Ripley's "Wash Day Charleston" (fig. 9) portrays a more racially diverse scene with two white women and a black woman and child all working together in the area behind the house. As beautiful as it often is, imagery of wash day is a symbol of the complexities of class race and culture. Corrie McCallum, co-founder of the Charleston school of art with her husband, fellow artist William Halsey, chose to depict the front of a house on St. George street (fig. 10) rather than the concealed workings of the household. Her modernist study was most likely conceived with issues of line and color in mind rather than the social implications of laundry hanging on the porch. Even so, it bears a message. This neighborhood was perhaps poor enough that there was no need to conceal the washing or there was no where to do so.

Some came for the light and the climate, some for the landscape and history, and some were born here but artists working in the south have not come up short when seeking picturesque subject matter. Laundry is just such a subject, and everyone can relate to it -- having performed the modern equivalent, having appreciated the outcome of someone else's labors, or having seen a cabin along the road with clotheslines draped and fluttering. It is because of this shared experience that these pictures resonate with us. They are part of our history, they demonstrate artistic virtuosity and they reinforce that this is a shared landscape we inhabit.


About The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, SC

The inspiration for the Johnson Collection of southern American paintings is the idea that works of art capture a moment in time and indeed convey a shared history. The collection is focused on works by artists who are southern by birth or who were born elsewhere but chose to work in the south. Paintings range in date from 1780 to the present, with the majority of the works executed between 1850 and 1950.

George and Susu Johnson have been collecting works of southern art with an eye toward enriching their local community by providing an opportunity to interact with and study great works of art. As the collection has grown, so has their commitment to chronicling the places and events -- real and perceived -- that define our collective past. Working with local and national museums and educational institutions, the Johnson's are committed to loaning works from their collection, providing access to students and the community.


About the exhibition

On exhibit October 3 through December 30, 2007 at the Spartanburg Art Museum, Mundane and Sublime: Wash Day Images from the Johnson Collection features works whose "Wash Day" images will be familiar to anyone growing up in the South before washing machines and dryers moved the weekly (and often daily tasks) indoors. Paintings from Southern masters such as Elliott Daingerfield, Alfred Hutty, Eugene Healon Thomason, Elizabeth O'Neil Verner, and William Aiken Walker are included in the exhibition.

Washing was certainly some of the hardest, hottest and most laborious of household tasks. It was not interesting; it was routine, commonplace and tedious -- mundane. In the country one made the soap, built a fire, boiled and scrubbed and finally hung the clothes on the line. Perhaps therein lies the sublime: the relief of a difficult task completed, linens flapping in a breeze, sun-dried garments.

The references to wash day in this exhibition are compelling for a number of reasons. They are beautiful, accessible, and they evoke personal memories. Beyond these associations is the connection created by the shared experience of a task -- laundry.

While a landscape or street scene can be beautiful, these same views with laundry drying on a line convey a broader message: that the people living here are industrious and determined. They value cleanliness and civility. These images of purity and hard work are at the core of the American self image. They are part of our history, they demonstrate artistic virtuosity and reinforce that this is a shared landscape we inhabit.


(above: Richard Bryan (1907-1986), Monday Morning - John's Island, South Carolina, 1938, Oil on canvas. The Johnson Collection)


(above: Elliott Daingerfield (1859-1932), Cannon Towels, Oil on canvas. The Johnson Collection)


(above: E. T. H. Foster, Sketch On The Road To Hendersonville, Oil on canvas. The Johnson Collection)


(above: William Gilbert Gaul (1855-1919), Van Buren, Tennessee, circa 1881, Oil on canvas. The Johnson Collection)


(above: Alfred Heber Hutty (1877-1954), Monday Morning, Oil on canvas. The Johnson Collection)


(above: Corrie Parker McCallum (1914- ), George St., 1941, Watercolor. The Johnson Collection)


Please click here for additional images.


About the Spartanburg Art Museum

The museum's postal address is 200 E. St. John Street, Spartanburg, SC 29306. Please see the museum's website for hours and admission fees.


Editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 23, 2007 with the permission of the The Johnson Collection. Images were also provided by The Johnson Collection. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Brunk of The Johnson Collection for her permission for reprinting the above essay.

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