Painting The Southland

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TAKING STOCK of painting in the South in 1859, a critic for the New Orleans Daily Cresent concluded glumly, “Artist roam the country of the North, turning out pictures by the hundred yearly, but none come to glean the treasures with which grand and beautiful country of the South and its peculiar life abound.” The reason many artists stayed away was that throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, the region’s poor roads, widely scattered population, and almost entirely agricultural economy made it difficult to earn a living there. Artist born in the South, like those emigrating from abroad, tended to gravitate to Niagara Falls and the Hudson River valley.

There was painting going on in the South during these years, both by itinerant folk painters and trained professional artists, but until recently much of it remained privately owned, handed down in families from generation to generation. The idea of collecting art in museums open to the public came relatively late to the South, and even in the cities art shared limited space with military relics and natural history specimens until the 1930s, when the New Deal finally gave a boost to regional arts programs.

To bring to light this long-neglected part of our heritage, the Virginia Museum in Richmond has organized a major exhibition, “Painting in the South, 1564–1980.” The show, sponsored by Philip Morris, Inc., opens in Richmond in September and will travel next year to Birmingham, New York, Jackson, Louisville, and New Orleans. The curators of this exhibit, attempting to characterize Southern painting and define what sets it apart from the art of.the rest of the nation, inevitably point to the experience of slavery and to the lasting feelings of separateness caused by defeat in the Civil War. But the effects of this sensibility are quite subtle, and viewers seeing this exhibition will be impressed above all by the number of unfamiliar and extraordinary works of art.

—J.C.