Images of African Americans in Southern Painting, 1840-1940. (Essay)

Article excerpt

The paintings featured here are from the private collections of A. Everette James and Nancy Farmer and are frequently on view at the University of North Carolina and other locations throughout the Southeast,

From the 1840s through World War II, paintings by artists working in the South for the most part mirrored images fashioned throughout America. These paintings were different from those created in other parts of the country, however, in that they reflected the southern sense of place and the 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. Skin color appeared coal black; lips were thick and red, supported by protruding, overly large teeth. The contrived and exaggerated physical features, poor quality of clothing, and subservient activities of the African American 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 and imposed upon African Americans by whites, 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 to some extent the massive social upheaval that followed in the war's wake. By the mid 1870s, however, 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. Perhaps this was in response to the hardships and frustrations brought about by the unanticipated complexity of Reconstruction. The images from this period selectively depicted the era before the Civil War as a time of harmony and tranquility between whites and blacks. Although this characterization is, to say the least, not entirely accurate, in some memories it rang true and became a popular myth in the South as well as to a lesser extent in the rest of the country. 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. Despite the postwar nostalgia for the "good ole days," Charleston-born William Aiken Walker's numerous portrayals of black carpetbaggers were much sought after, and his rare larger nostalgic images were equally as popular among whites in both the North and South. (His larger depictions of plantation life still fetch vast sums from museums and collectors despite their simplistic and inaccurate portrayal of African American life.)

Portrayals of African Americans in southern art remained nostalgic, rural, and frequently demeaning from Reconstruction until the rapid sweep of urbanization and migration of African Americans to the North in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The changes to the U.S. social structure wrought by this shift from an agrarian base to an industrial, urban life improved the status of African Americans. Images of African Americans in paintings gradually evolved to reflect these changes and came to affect their portrayal in areas of the deep South as well. White artists sometimes dignified African Americans in southern paintings with a clear individuality, and their physical characteristics were not nearly as exaggerated and demeaning as they had been in the middle-to-late nineteenth century. These images far more accurately represented African American culture and society than the paintings executed during the period immediately following the Civil War and during Reconstruction. …