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

3 Responses to “Exhibition Purpose”

  1. on 19 Aug 2010 at 6:45 pmPaul Parish

    Miss Welty was recorded narrating her first sight of the ruins of Windsor (I’ve seen a clip on some PBS documentary); it clearly inspired awe, like one of Wordsworth’s “spots in time.” THe house is near Port Gibson (in the 1860s it was closer to hte now-disappeared river town of Rodney), and to the knowledgeable the ruins of WIndsor are faintly evoked in the ruin of a china lamp from Port Gibson that a party is sent to fetch in her novella “Delta WEdding.” This an ancestral treasure — “the Port Gibson lamp” — gets broken on the return journey and adds another laurel to the Fairchild family legend.

    THe era in which Windsor was built was one that treasured the idea of a fragment or ruin — as of a Greek statue or temple — as more wonderful aesthetically than the perfect thing itself had been, and Miss Welty is evoking that Romantic attitude as well as noticing askance the folly of “climbing the family tree,” which this family does on a regular basis, and it makes them both charming and impossible. The “modern daughteryoung heroine is determined not to live like her parents.

  2. on 12 Oct 2010 at 7:53 pmkelsey winsor

    great pictures!!!
    i remember seeing this picture one day..

  3. on 09 Dec 2010 at 8:15 pmSusan Dunlap

    Nearly three years have passed since I saw this exhibit. Still, I can’t get it out of my mind. Of all museum exhibits I’ve seen — we’re talking the Tate, MOMA, Chicago Institute, The Louvre, the Ghetty — nothing has affected me as has this. If ever it travels, please include a Kentucky stop. If ever it is reinstalled, I want to know about it. I talk about it with everyone I meet.

    Susan Dunlap
    Versailles, Kentucky

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