The Planter's Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Paintings
O'Brien, Greg, Southern Quarterly
The Planter's Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Paintings. By John Michael Vlach. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. x, 216 pp. + illustrations, notes, index. $49.95, $24.95 paper.
To this day, painted images of antebellum southern plantations and mansions mold the minds of southerners. Even outside the South, the dominant symbol of all things southern is often the columned white plantation house surrounded by moss-draped oaks and fertile fields. Continuously reprinted and re-romanticized, the images of plantations can be bought nearly everywhere in the South, especially in areas like Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston where the effort to preserve these architecturally significant buildings has been in full-swing since the early twentieth century. Images such as these are also found in history textbooks, usually in the form of paintings, where they are used to depict discussions of slavery, the antebellum South, or the Civil War. Until now, few scholars have thought to ask in what ways these paintings are misleading and why, who painted them, and what can we learn from studying such objects. John Michael Vlach, a George Washington University professor of American Studies and anthropology, tackles these issues in an intriguing, readable, lavishly-illustrated, and important study of plantation paintings.
Vlach builds upon his earlier work, In Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1993), focusing this time on the landscape perspectives of southern artists from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. This book features eight chapters, the middle six of which follow chronologically and look in detail at the work of six particular artists: Francis Guy, Charles Fraser, Adrien Persac, Frances Flora Bond Palmer and the firm of Currier & Ives, William Aiken Walker, and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. Together, they painted plantation scenes from Maryland to Georgia to Louisiana. Vlach offers a biographical sketch of each artist and analyzes their lives for clues to their motivations in portraying plantations the way they did. Although they employed different styles and came from a variety of backgrounds (though all are white), Vlach discerns significant changes in the portrayal of plantation scenes from the antebellum to the postbellum periods, especially in the way the paintings depicted slavery and enslaved peoples.
Vlach writes that he "became keenly aware of the statements of power encoded in plantation landscapes" (1) painted before the Civil War as the viewer's gaze was invariably directed upward to the mansion home from a point some distance away. …