Archive for May, 2008

What does “plantation” mean today?

Maurie McInnis, Director of American Studies and Associate Professor of Art History, University of Virginia

 

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art brings together an astonishing array of images spanning more than two hundred years. Despite great stylistic divergence, the thematic consistency results in an extended conversation about the meaning of the plantation across chronological and cultural divides. In the exhibition, we wanted both to interrogate the historical genesis of the image of the plantation as well as explore its continuing resonance. Our strategy for this was to seek a variety of perspectives on what “plantation” has meant at different times and to different artists. In many minds the historical plantation is synonymous with slavery. Yet, we did not want to do an exhibition about slavery broadly defined, but rather one more narrowly dealing with the plantation as a real place, an imagined place, and a remembered place.

As an art historian whose research is centered on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South, I have long thought about these works in terms of what they reveal about earlier attitudes about race, slavery, and politics. Now that the exhibition is up and the works are together for the first time, I am struck by the conversation that is going on between the artists of the recent past and the artists of the nineteenth century. Deeply conversant with both the history and the images of the past, the contemporary artists in the exhibition confront the visual past to explore the legacy of plantation slavery.

The exhibition explores the plantation as a historical place. It is a term, however, that is still very much alive in contemporary rhetoric, often with conflicting meanings. For example, “plantation” is used to describe an imbalance of power, like when Hillary Clinton described Congress as a plantation. Simultaneously, there is another definition at play, one that implies exclusivity. Countless real estate developments rely on “plantation” in the title to suggest some sort of grace and refinement. For your new plantation home you can buy plantation furniture and shade yourself from the sun with plantation shutters. I am struck by these divergent perspectives, both in the art and in the language, and I invite others to share their thoughts on the different perspectives of what “plantation” means.


View of Mulberry, House and Street, ca. 1800
By Thomas Coram (American, 1756 – 1811)
Oil on paper
4 1/19 x 6 1/16 inches
Gibbes Museum of Art
1968.018.0001

Exhibition Purpose

Angela D. Mack, Executive Director, Gibbes Museum of Art

Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art afforded the opportunity to look at a wide range of images that relate to plantation life in the US South. Of course, this was not new material to me as longtime curator at the Gibbes. Previous work on exhibitions and publications concerning artists such as Thomas Coram (1756-1811), Charles Fraser (1782-1860), William Aiken Walker (1838-1821), and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), who have extensive representation in the collection, and thorough study of John Michael Vlach’s 2002 book entitled The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings, in which three of the five artists examined are from Charleston, were the catalysts for this present discussion.

However, close study of the broader subject matter quickly revealed that art historians had not, as yet, examined extensively the material from their perspective, nor had there been any attempt to understand potential influences on contemporary art. Toward that end Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art aims to expand on previous scholarship and explore the aesthetic motives and social uses of works of art from the eighteenth century to the present that feature plantations.

As a result of this investigation, a few generalities may be observed: firstly and not surprisingly, that early plantation imagery is an outgrowth of the British estate view that celebrated patrons’ accumulated wealth using the artistic tenants set forth by the landscape tradition; secondly, that after the Civil War toiling ex-slaves were incorporated into images of plantations in an effort to memorialize a way of life that was perceived by northern and southern patrons as slipping away; and thirdly, that certain features in 18th and 19th century plantation imagery such as stooping African-Americans, specific crops (cotton, tobacco, or rice) or dilapidated shacks are used by later artists to evoke the plantation.

The Ruins of Windsor, ca. 1935
The Ruins of Windsor, ca. 1935
By Eudora Welty (American, 1909-2001)
Photograph, 13 1/2 x 12 5/8 inches
© Eudora Welty, LLC; Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History