American Stories (Through a Mirror, Darkly)

April 21, 2010

When I was a kid, I lived in the nineteenth century. Admittedly, I was an old guy before I realized that poignant detail about my grandfather’s farm. Everything about it was of a distant time, for there was not one modern convenience in sight. Everything was intensely labor related. But at nine years of age, the world was still a wonder and so the anachronism of the farm seemed rather like implacable fact. And nothing so reminded me of that moment than seeing Winslow Homer’s Cotton Pickers. This utterly striking image flooded my memory with that life and all the attending forces and beauties that the past could conjure.


Winslow Homer, "Cotton Pickers," acquisition made possible through Museum Trustees: Robert O. Anderson, R. Stanton Avery, B. Gerald Cantor, Edward W. Carter, Justin Dart, Charles E. Ducommun, Camilla Chandler Frost, Julian Ganz, Jr., Dr. Armand Hammer, Harry Lenart, Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, Mrs. Joan Palevsky, Richard E. Sherwood, Maynard J. Toll, and Hal B. Wallis

American Stories has such power, the power of a distant recall, the elusive narrative that manages to trace the ill-conceived and erratic path where somehow we Americans find ourselves in a very different future. What we learned about “narrative painting” is the nature of their owners, for this was a bourgeois world. And though it was a world where the unpleasant was kept at bay, there were still quite practical aims to be achieved. Status had to be acknowledged, daughters had to marry, land and livestock had to be sold. In a very real sense, commerce and then pleasantries were on display in the guise of the idealized narrative of the mildest aspects of American life.

The idea of art and artist in some journalistic form was merely a budding aside to the business of art. It is probably unfair and even nonsensical to assess painting at that time as anything but utilitarian, hence the narrow focus, though this would not always be the case. But unfortunately, in our modern times, the down side is that it aids a form of historical forgetting and implies an entirely different past reality.

From the African American’s view, this is a dark, melancholy, and bittersweet story. One cannot avoid the unambiguous and sorrowful state of slavery and post-slavery life and the immense cruelty that forms the backdrop to this American drama. Maybe, coming from the post-Reconstruction period, Winslow Homer’s rare, debatable though insightful painting Gulf Stream, where the black man on a rudderless boat is in truly troubled waters surrounded by sharks with little hope of rescue, could suggest an abiding metaphor.


Winslow Homer, "Gulf Stream," 1906, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund

For most of the pictures, the purposeful hint at the marginalized presence of the African Americans on the edge of “white” social events may very well serve as a graphic tool of their lamentable presence and an illustrated hierarchy that they occupied which could not be denied, even if it were possible. The narrative painting would give way to moving pictures, starting with the release of Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith in 1915, his racist retort to Reconstruction. And once more darkness would fall on the true American stories that would know no paint.

Nevertheless American Stories is a mirror and a Rosetta stone of our convoluted past, and these dim tableaus, these plaintive snapshots in their vivid paint, where a universe lays motionless, are a continual reminder of our shadow world and the extraordinary distance we have traveled.

Hylan Booker