Friday, March 29, 2013

The Civil War and American Art

I went to see The Civil War and American Art exhibit a few days ago at the American Art Museum. It was awesome.

That's Negro Life at the South by Eastman Johnson. The original is being shown at the exhibit. This painting blew me away. There's a lot going on in this image, but look at the skin tones of its characters: some people have light skin, some have dark skin, and one--on the far right--has skin light enough to pass for a white woman. Clearly, she does pass, given the type and color of dress she's in. Why is she here, then, if she's white? Perhaps her father was white, her mother was black, and she's visiting her family.

Whatever the case may be, the image has an amazing point: that race isn't innate, but constructed. What does whiteness mean, in this painting? Blackness? The distinction is arbitrary and, in this world, haunted by the unseen presence of a white master, tyrannical.

This sort of commentary is still meaningful, but Negro Life at the South was released in 1857. 1857!


  1. Why have you not considered that this woman is culturally white? Is it not possible that a white woman would be in this scene? I think it should be considered, especially when she's at the very margins and in a stance that implies she's just peaking in.

    1. Well that's sort of what I was saying with "clearly, she does pass." But my point was that calling someone "white" or "black" in the painting is sort of slippery. She's culturally white, yes, but what is the definition of whiteness? Why is she white, but the girl on the left side of the painting black?

      I also think that her position at the margins of the painting, sort of halfway in and halfway out of that door, implies the way she is in some ways both "white" and "black," further confusing what those two terms really mean. What do you think about that?

  2. I found this painting awesome too. Regarding the two "white" women in the painting, I began imagining a background story... something like these two white women are related somehow. This is my version of the story : the white girl on the right side of the painting is the daughter of the lord of the manor. But so is the other white girl in the left side of the painting ! They have a father in common. One girl is legitimate, the other not. Her mother was a slave her master had impregnated, which explains that she's living in the slave quarters. The other girl, in the right side of the painting, has just learned the truth about her half-sister and she had come to see her.
    OK, that's just my imagination... I'm a writer so my imagination tends to take the fast lane when the subject is worth it.

  3. I recently had a chance to see "The Civil War and American Art" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. My only regret is that I didn't spread the word sooner about this captivating exhibition that closes at the Smithsonian on April 28. If you get to Washington between now and then, make sure to stop by the museum. Once the exhibition leaves the nation's capital, it will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and remain there from May 27 to September 2, 2013.
    Byers Choice Santa

  4. Why tinker with the historical record? And just like colorized films, these images look "off" somehow. It is a far cry from "living color." One would think that digitization would allow for a more realistic look. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!