What The Planter's Prospect Teaches Us About Advocacy in Art
I've always loved the art of painting. I'm primarily drawn to it for its beauty, but subject matter is equally important to me. That's why I was delighted to stumble upon a book by John Michael Vlach entitled The Planter's Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Paintings. In it, Vlach describes paintings and drawings of plantation landscapes and what they have to say about slavery. There's an important lesson to be learned about what the art we create can do.
In the 1800's in the Southern United States, plantation landscape paintings became popular for several reasons. They were an expression of power and ego for the plantation owners. They were a visual record of a piece of property. But also, the plantation lifestyle changed significantly with the Emancipation Proclamation. Plantation paintings were a romantic preservation of a disappearing way of life.
The problem was that the paintings often minimized slavery. Take this painting of George Washington's plantation home, The East Front of Mount Vernon, as an example.
The painting puts the house in the center. Other buildings are hidden by a tree in the foreground. Granted, this was painted in the late 1700's, well before the Civil War. George Washington was already revered. A majestic painting of his property is likely an expression of honor and respect for Washington. However, this image of the sprawling estate does little to reflect the 300 plus slaves that kept it going. Where are the slaves?
They're here, in The Old Mount Vernon by Eastman Johnson, painted in 1857.
In this piece, Washington's plantation home is pushed to the side. Near the center sits the plain Servants Hall, the fence before it eroding. The man in the doorway and the child in the grass are African-American, as are the figures scattered in the background. Johnson wanted to highlight the everyday life of the plantation, and slavery was central to everyday life. The perspective is still low; Johnson has us gazing up at the buildings to feel a sense of awe at their stature. But they aren't as massive. We are closer to the subject matter, rather than viewing it across a vast expanse of land. And the central figures are slaves.
After the Civil War, plantation paintings changed. Post-war artwork looked back wistfully upon the days of slavery. Some expressed this with landscapes overflowing with slaves, often under their masters' watchful eye. Others took a more subtle approach, like this painting by Thomas Addison Richards, known as River Plantation.
In River Plantation, we can see several African-Americans. The closest leads livestock, but he is dwarfed by the magnificent oak tree and the open sky. Are the figures in the painting slaves? It's hard to say. But what is that behind the dark tree on the left? The vertical stripes might be the columns of a plantation house.
Now let's look at The Cotton Pickers, a painting by Winslow Homer.
These women are not obscured by nature. Neither are they ugly caricatures of African-Americans, as were popular at the time. Homer puts these women in the foreground, heroic and beautiful. The basket and the sack are brimming, but it hasn't made a dent in the work ahead, as the fields are still full of cotton. Their legs are obscured, locking them to their labor. Painted in 1876, 11 years after the Civil War's end, Homer gives a humanizing vision of these women that is unique to his day. They are women, not slaves, but the scars of slavery are visible.
I consider myself an artist. My particular art form is fiction, but it is no less about beauty and subject matter than painting. Much of my art is self-absorbed, starring thinly-veiled portraits of myself. I use my art to articulate my own experiences, conveying what terrifies me, discourages me, makes me laugh, or fills me with inspiration and courage. These are fine things.
I know I have ended my articles in an open-ended way before, but I can't help doing so now. Look at the power of the women in The Cotton Pickers. Look at the quiet, mournful beauty of The Old Mount Vernon. A hand reaches out of the past and grabs hold of us, directing our gaze upon reality in a manner so marvelously unique. If you are an artist, perhaps your art can advocate, too. For artists and others alike, we can look at art and be informed of another's experience. Art is a powerful tool to promote advocacy. Let us allow it to do so.
About the Author
Lucas Moore is a writer in Los Angeles. He likes Neo-noir films, running and cycling, classic American novels, small venue music shows, and burritos.