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.